By Will Curran-Groome
With the Town of Carrboro’s first-ever comprehensive planning effort currently under way, our community has a unique opportunity to assess where we’re at and chart a better vision for the future. This is a call for Carrboro’s Town Council to abolish parking minimums in Carrboro, which will help to move our town toward a more racially and economically equitable, sustainable, and economically vibrant future. You can urge the Council to end parking minimums by sending them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by signing up to speak at a Council meeting.
Parking minimums have received recent attention in a number of cities and towns across the U.S. as communities have reckoned with antiquated policies that subsidize driving, mandate large areas of impermeable surface, increase the costs of housing, and degrade natural environments and the aesthetic characters of neighborhoods. Cities such as Minneapolis, MN, and Berkeley, CA, have recently moved to eliminate parking minimums. Carrboro should follow suit.
In this article, I first provide a brief background on parking minimums and how they operate in Carrboro. Then, I look at how removing parking minimums can help to address three interrelated issues: 1) racial and economic inequities; 2) environmental sustainability; and 3) the economic health of our community.
Parking minimums are unfortunately common in towns and cities across the U.S. As car ownership became increasingly widespread beginning in the 1920s and accelerating dramatically post-war, parking minimums in turn became bread-and-butter planning policy. In response to fears that free, on-street parking would become overwhelmed unless there were also sufficient off-street spaces, and through pseudo-scientific assessments of how many off-street spaces are needed, planners created parking minimums.
These minimums require a specific number of parking spaces for each new development, with the total required parking dependent on characteristics such as the number of bedrooms (for residential development) or the square footage (e.g., for retail or office uses). But because the number of parking spaces is usually based on the peak demand—for example, calculating the number of parking spaces required for a mall based on the number of cars expected the day before Christmas—minimums almost always require more spaces than are actually needed. And because parking minimums bundle parking costs in with other expenses, such as the cost of your housing or the price of food at the grocery store, they both force non-drivers to pay for parking and hide the true costs of these requirements. In the words of UCLA Professor Donald Shoup: 
“[Parking minimums] increase traffic congestion, pollute the air, encourage sprawl, raise housing costs, degrade urban design, prevent walkability, damage the economy, and penalize everyone who cannot afford a car.”
So how do parking minimums work in Carrboro? Carrboro’s Land Use Ordinance (LUO) establishes the parking minimums that apply to different types of development. Table 1 highlights some of the most common types of residential development and their required parking levels, but don’t forget that parking minimums apply to retail, office, and other land uses as well! (They’ve been omitted here for brevity; you can avail yourself of them in detail on pages 425-430 of the LUO.)
Table 1. Carrboro’s Parking Minimums
|Type of development||requirement|
|Single-family detached houses||Two per unit, plus one per rented room. |
Spaces in a garage don’t count.
|Duplexes and triplexes||Two per unit; one-bedroom units only require one.|
|Multi-family residences||One space per bedroom, plus one per four units. |
Except if “each dwelling unit has an entrance and living space on the ground floor”:
Two per unit; one-bedroom units only require one.
Except if the unit is limited to low- or moderate-income residents or the elderly:
One per unit.
The product of Carrboro’s minimums is a streetscape overwhelmed by empty parking, as shown below.
Racial and Economic Inequities
Parking minimums disproportionately impact lower-income residents of our community, who are less likely to own a car,, are more likely to live in multi-family housing—which has the highest parking requirements per unit—and for whom the added costs of unneeded parking represent a greater share of their income. Though parking minimums might appear to be “race neutral”, they also disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) community members, who, due to systemic racism, are more likely to be lower-income.
By making residents pay for parking in order to obtain housing, buy groceries, or get a haircut, parking minimums directly contribute to issues of housing unaffordability and effectively impose a regressive sales taxi on other goods and services. One recent study estimates that each residential parking space costs $800 per year, and Carrboro’s parking minimums require at least two parking spaces per unit. This means that we’re forcing households to pay hundreds of dollars each year for parking in order to obtain housing… even if those households don’t own a single car.
i While the costs of parking, which are bundled into the costs of goods and services, are undoubtedly regressive, the sales tax analogy is imperfect. Sales taxes generate revenues for the taxing government, and consumers can clearly identify the impact of a sales tax on their bill or receipt, in contrast to parking costs (among other differences).
Parking requirements, beyond creating and sustaining racial and economic inequities, are also environmentally destructive in terms of both our community’s natural environment and the effects parking and driving have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
By legally requiring unneeded parking spaces as part of new construction, parking minimums require development to pave over more of our community’s land, converting open space to impermeable surface and leading to serious stormwater runoff problems. Further, because parking minimums effectively subsidize the cost of driving, and thus induce more driving, they contribute significantly to transportation-related GHG emissions. And because parking minimums reserve otherwise valuable land for parking, they push other development outward. This contributes to lower-density, sprawling development patterns, which in turn are directly related to higher levels of driving and GHG emissions. Finally, the process of creating and maintaining parking generates GHG emissions in and of itself.
The negative economic effects of parking minimums stem from many of the issues introduced above. Carrboro’s parking minimums force residents (and everyone else who might want to do something in town) to pay for parking, instead of spending their money on local goods and services. Parking payments don’t accrue to the Town government, the way sales tax revenue would, nor do they redound to local business owners. This money just goes toward the costs of installing, maintaining, and paying the taxes on parking.
Speaking of taxes, lost property tax revenue is another huge, hidden expense of parking. Instead of more valuable and productive uses of our community’s land, such as housing, businesses, and offices, we waste acres of our most valuable land on mostly-unoccupied pavement. Because the per-square-foot tax assessments of parking are so low, parking mandates preclude more robust public revenues. When we come up short for funding critical community services such as our schools, subsidized affordable housing, libraries, and parks, the prevalence of low-tax-value parking is significantly to blame.
Our community already has too much unneeded parking; there’s no good reason to require more of it. Ending parking minimums doesn’t mean prohibiting new parking—it just means allowing new development to build more appropriate quantities of parking going forward. As one of very few places in the country with a free public transit system, and as the densest municipality in the state, Carrboro is ideally positioned to take this progressive step forward. Ending parking minimums will support our community’s economic health, align with our climate change goals, and serve to remove one significant but invisible policy that perpetuates racial and economic inequity.
Will is a second-year master’s student in the Department of City and Regional Planning. Prior to UNC, he worked in public health and social services research with a nonprofit in Philadelphia. Will’s academic interests include land use policy, affordable housing, and the relationship between the built environment and health.
Edited by Emma Vinella-Brusher
Featured image: Front yard or parking lot? The perverse outcomes of Carrboro’s parking minimums. Image source: Author.
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