Tuesday, July 8, 2008

They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot

In the field of urbanism and land use policy, there are two major anti-market forces at work in America: zoning laws that mandate low density, and parking laws that mandate lots of parking. Both are often ignored when it comes to discussions of transportation and the environment, but the Washington Post has a rare story about parking. The story is specifically focused on Tysons Corner, a suburban edge city outside of DC which has become a major job center in recent years. The town's Wikipedia article calls it "the opposite of a bedroom community, with a daytime population greater than 70,000 and a nighttime population of about 18,000."

Anyway, like most edge cities in America, the place is literally paved over, with 40 million square feet of parking compared to 28 million square feet of office space. And at 167,000 spots in total, there are more than three times the number of spots (50,000) as in "downtown Washington" (what exactly that means – everything in DC? – is unclear). Though the article laments all this parking, it's never exactly clear why there is so much parking. Is it built by the government, or built by private developers? Do the developers build it because that's what the market demands, or do they build it because minimum parking regulations force them to? The article gives a few hints that it's the government, not the developers, who want all the parking:

Yet private developers, including the big retailers, are ready to do with less parking. They welcome the chance to spend less money building parking structures, which can cost as much as $40,000 per parking space. [...]

"The market quickly figured out that you didn't need as much parking," said Arlington board member Chris Zimmerman (D). [...]

"County planners may also be an impediment, Schwartz said, noting that the county increased its parking requirements recently for some developments."

Overall, I'm not terribly impressed with the article. It could have gone a lot deeper explaining why exactly there is so much parking, discussing the economics of minimum parking regulations and the Catch-22 that says that mass transit won't be built without density, but density won't be allowed without transit. Or they could have picked a developer and had him discuss the costs of the project and layout of a particular project if he built the whole thing according to how he wants it, versus the plan that he'll eventually be forced to accept due to minimum parking regulations. For a deeper treatment of the subject, see Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking. I haven't read the book, but it sure looks interesting – you can find reviews and discussion of the book and the idea here, here, and here, with an ungated article from 1999 by the author on the same subject here.

(HT: Planetizen, an invaluable daily stream of articles related to land use, urbanism, and transportation.)


Allen said...

I don't like the gov't. dictating how many spots should or shouldn't be built. And I don't doubt that developers want to build less or could build less. I'm curious how much less they could build. I can't imagine their clients, the people leasing office or retail space from them, being too keen on having a bunch of customer or employees who can't find a spot nearby.

I don't understand the comparison between Tysons Corner and downtown DC. Wouldn't it make more sense to compare the number of parking spots to the number workers?

Stephen said...

Actually, it does compare the number of jobs – it says that downtown Washington has "more than twice as many jobs" as Tysons Corner.

Allen said...

Did I miss that? Wow.... I must've needed more coffee. Sorry.

A little bored so I peaked. Looks like downtown DC has @ 175,000 workers according to it's downtown council. Tysons Corner didn't seem to have a similar organization, at least not that I found easily on the internet. But that same article said downtown DC had twice as many as Tysons corner, placing Tysons numbers at 120,000.

Now there seems to be talk of DC on pace to hit 200,000 in 2020... that sort of thing. But if anything I'd argue that if the CBD's booster orgnization is saying 175,000, it's not going to be more than that. I didn't set out to nit pick on that point. 175,00 would be around 45-50 % more jobs than Tysons Corner and not double as the article claims.

I was just curious while taking a lunch break. It doesn't take away from the butt ton of parking space there. Then again if the article was that far off on the number of jobs, what else did they screw up?

Speaking of comparisons, downtown DC seem to have 70 million sq ft versus Tysons Corner's 26 million sq ft. If we're going to talk about efficient use of space, how is that they have 50% more workers but nearly 3 times as much office space? Seems like it might be that in Tysons Corner you get a lil' cube and parking spot for your car. But in downtown DC everyone gets a spacious office.

Allen said...

BTW - How many of Tysons Corners parking spots are actually part of office developments versus retail. IIRC they've got a butt ton of retail there.