Three Major Problems with Parking Minimums

Parking minimums are the strange, out-dated, and totally unscientific law that’s probably languishing in your city’s zoning code. They sound dull (and they are) but they’re incredibly important because they have dramatically shaped our cities in a detrimental manner.

parking lot

Today, I’m explaining exactly why these laws are harmful and what you can do about them.

1. They rob us of financial productivity and prosperity.

In most cities, municipal services — be they fire protection, schools or streets — are paid for (in part) by property tax revenue, and the amount that every property is taxed is based on its assessed value.

land value graphic

In this image showing the tax value per acre of land in Des Moines, IA, the taller plots produce high tax value per acre while the low-lying plots produce little tax value. We can clearly see that the areas filled with parking are contributing little to the municipal budget. (Source: Urban3)

For parking lots, that value is very little. When we multiply this calculation across our cities where parking lots are required by law for most properties, what we find is an enormous loss in tax value. This translates to fewer police officers on the roads, fewer teachers in the classrooms, fewer potholes patched, street lamps fixed, parks planted… and so on.

As our friend Josh McCarty, who has studied the tax value of parking in depth, writes, “Ultimately parking is the single most important design feature that dilutes the tax productivity of development. Municipalities for whom property taxes are lifeblood should treat parking for what it is: dead weight.”

2. They hinder small business owners, homeowners, developers and renters.

That’s right, parking minimums are bad for just about everyone. Here’s a quick break down:

• Small business owners are forced to spend their precious, hard-earned dollars paying for designated parking spaces for their customers instead of spending that money on supplies, space to sell products, etc. Or they’re excluded outright from locating in certain areas because of a lack of parking.

• Homeowners are prevented from taking on basic projects like adding a small rental unit in a basement or backyard because parking minimums would mandate the provision of a parking space for the tenant of that unit (and the typical single-family lot doesn’t have room to add that).

Developers are unable to execute projects because (similar to homeowners) a lack of space on a given lot may prevent them from constructing the required parking to accompany it, or (similar to business owners) they are forced to spend a large portion of their development budget on storage for cars instead of units for paying tenants. (For more on this issue, listen to our interview with developer Monte Anderson.)

• Renters end up losing many housing opportunities because spaces that could be filled with homes are, instead, filled with parking.

3. They fill our cities with empty, useless space.

This is what one block of charming Old Town Pocatello, Idaho would look like if it had to follow modern day parking requirements.

(See more examples here.)

This final point is made glaringly obvious on Strong Towns’ annual #BlackFridayParking Day where we invite our readers to go out into their cities on one of the biggest shopping days of the year and take pictures of the parking lots around them. Every November, without fail, we see that even on this busy shopping day, city after city is filled with empty, unused asphalt.

Not only is this a waste of space that could be put to a thousand more productive uses, parking lots also create greater distance between the homes and businesses in our communities, making it take longer to get to them and forcing our cities to spend more on roads, traffic lights and other transportation infrastructure. What could be a simple walk between the grocery story and home is now a multi-mile drive — and parking minimums are one of the main culprits.

At the end of the day, cities full of parking are not attractive, inviting or enjoyable places to spend time in. Picture an exciting, fun destination you’ve traveled to. Maybe it’s a cute beach town or a bustling metropolis. Was every building there separated by a sea of parking? I’m guessing not.

As architect Benjamin Ledford wrote last year, with parking minimums, we have forbidden what we value most. Instead of family homes and thriving businesses, we have acres and acres of asphalt.

To sum up, parking minimums deplete our cities of tax revenue, hinder just about everyone who lives or does business in our communities and leave us with lots of empty, useless space.

If you’ve had enough of these silly, pointless requirements, check out our 5 Resources for Ending Parking Minimums or visit our Parking page for lots more on this issue, including success stories and an interactive map of towns getting rid of minimums.

This column was originally published here.


The mission of Strong Towns is to support a model of growth that allows America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods to become financially strong and resilient.

The American approach to growth is causing economic stagnation and decline. It has made America’s cities financially insolvent, unable to pay even the maintenance costs of their basic infrastructure. A new approach that accounts for the full cost of growth is needed.

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