Why San Francisco Nixing Parking Minimums Is a Win for the Environment

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In San Francisco, fewer city-mandated parking spots means fewer cars on the road, which, in turn, means a drop in greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Buffalo has done it. Colorado Springs has done it. And, late last year, Hartford, Connecticut did it, too.

Now comes news that San Francisco has joined an expanding inventory of cities to put the kibosh on zoning rules that necessitate newly built housing developments provide a minimum number of parking spaces for residents.

The legislation, which as the San Francisco Examiner reports was passed Dec. 4 by the city's Board of Supervisors in a 6-4 vote, is the most extensive of its kind, with San Francisco being the largest American city to strike such parking requirements on a citywide basis, giving developers the freedom and flexibility to include as few parking spaces as they want.

"This legislation in no way removes the option of the developer building parking," Supervisor Jane Kim, who introduced the legislation, clarifies. "We are just not requiring developers to build parking if they don't want to."

The general thinking is that fewer available parking spaces ultimately leads to fewer cars on the road. And this, of course, means reduced greenhouse emissions for this congestion-plagued California city where vehicles, as in most urban areas, remain a major source of air pollution.

The move is being heralded as a win for environmentalists, housing advocates, proponents of sustainable development and anyone and everyone who champions methods of getting around the City by the Bay without a private vehicle.

Building construction San Francisco
Moving forward, new construction in San Francisco won't necessarily also mean new parking. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Minimums already minimized in many parts of the city

Antiquated and inconsistent, San Francisco's planning code that requires a minimum number of parking spaces for new buildings dates back to the 1950s. Originally, every new unit of housing built in the city was obligated by law to come with at least one off-street parking space. So, for example, an 80-unit apartment tower built circa 1965 had to come equipped with a minimum of 80 individual parking spots.

Over the years as the city has grown, the rules have been relaxed in several zoning areas. Today, the minimum number of parking spaces that developers are required to provide varies by the size of the building in question as well as its location. Residential developments in close proximity to public transit — BART, in particular — have been required to provide less dedicated parking than developments further from mass transit since the 1970s. In some parts of city, the minimums have already been eliminated altogether.

And in neighborhoods where the minimums haven't been loosened, some developers have come to rely on legal loopholes (the installation of dedicated on-site bike parking being one) to further drive down the number of required parking spaces in their projects. This impetus to not include off-site parking is due largely to the exorbitant cost involved with providing it. Per Next City, the cost to build a new parking spot in San Francisco is second only to Honolulu, where the price tag attached to a single underground parking space is a staggering $38,000.

Kim's proposal — Curbed reports that it enjoyed early popularity amongst residents when presented during public meetings — simply expands the no-minimum rules.

Beyond new housing, discarding the city's minimum parking rules also applies to new commercial development. This isn't likely to cause major shockwaves amongst commuters in the city given that, as Next City explains, San Francisco has one of the lowest proportions of car commuters in the entire county.

Making room for more housing, not parking

To reiterate, San Francisco developers can — and likely will — continue to meet parking minimums.

Prior to the passage of the legislation, Paul Chasen, an urban designer with the San Francisco Planning Department, told the Examiner that residents in certain parts of the city will still likely demand that a certain number of parking spaces be provided at new residential developments although, to be clear, parking maximums will not be increased.

"They operate under political constraints where the neighborhoods will probably pressure them to build parking," he says of the developers who will continue to provide off-street parking as normal.

Developers who choose to eschew the minimums are presented with a new world of opportunity. Instead of spending a pretty penny to meet the required number of parking spots, they could — gasp — use those funds to build more places for people to live, not places for people to park their cars. And in housing-strapped San Francisco, more money, time and physical space dedicated to additional housing is no small deal. Developers could also dedicate land that would have otherwise been reserved for parking to create green space, additional bicycle parking, you name it.

"There is no good reason for the city to force the private market to produce parking spaces for every housing unit built," Arielle Fleisher, a transportation policy associate with venerable Bay Area nonprofit SPUR, tells the Examiner. "Eliminating minimum parking requirements reduces the cost of producing new housing and enables us to use our land more efficiently by replacing spaces for cars with spaces for people."

Apartment for rent in San Francisco
Need your sparkling new SF apartment to have an off-street parking spot? Once a given, that will no longer be a guarantee. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

'A very important policy step'

Based on the way members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted, it's obvious that some hold serious reservations regarding Kim's legislation.

As the Examiner reports, this camp included board President Malia Cohen, who voted against the proposal and expressed concern that eliminating off-street parking space minimums for new developments could have a detrimental impact on her district, which has subpar public transit options compared to other areas of the city as well as a large number of families and seniors who "rely on their vehicles as the safest, most convenient transportation option for them."

A member of the city's Land Use and Transportation committee, Kim underplayed the potential impact the move could have particularly on development itself, noting the effectiveness of the city's existing Transit-First policies. "This in many ways feels pro forma. But still is a very important policy step," she says.

This all being said, the ultimate aim of the legislation isn't just to formalize. It also seeks to encourage other major cities that are looking to institute, loosen or expand parking minimums beyond their downtown cores. It's one thing if Hartford does it. But with San Francisco doing it, too, this significantly ups the ante for other "major" American cities to follow suit. (Not that Hartford and the growing list of other cities with relaxed or eliminated parking minimums for new development are small potatoes.)

Along with environmental and pedestrian/bicycling advocacy groups, San Francisco-headquartered ride-share service Lyft also threw its support behind Kim's ordinance, calling it "a milestone moment for the City to codify its values with its planning requirements."

Reads a joint letter sent to the Board of Supervisors from Lyft and pro-development group YIMBY Action:

Required parking helps foster a paradigm of car ownership. In order to help California meet our climate goals, we must stop encouraging city dwellers to drive alone everywhere: making our city more polluted, congested, and isolated. Car ownership not only impacts land use on a macro-level, but influences all the way down to the street level. It encourages wide roads, on-street parking, and ultimately makes our streets less green and safe to other modes of transportation like walking, biking, scooters, ridesharing, and public transit.

Lyft, of course, has its own special reasons for supporting nixed parking minimums given that it could, first and foremost, be a boon for ride-sharing programs. Fewer San Franciscans who own and operate private cars means more potential customers for Lyft. Per local CBS affiliate KPIX, Supervisor Norman Yee, who voted against the legislation, sees this as problematic as it "could increase the number of ride-hailing service cars such as Uber and Lyft clogging city streets."

The ordinance will be subject to a second vote by the Board of Supervisors, which will be held next week. A spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, who ultimately has the power to veto the legislation, has signaled that she is in favor of it.