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California law abolishes parking minimums for new developments close to public transit

A condo building under construction in Midtown Sacramento.
Andrew Nixon
Capital Public Radio
A condo building under construction in Midtown Sacramento.

Governor Gavin Newsom has signed a new law banning California localities from requiring parking spaces for new developments built within half a mile of a public transit stop.

It’s a huge win for environmental advocates, who have long said that limiting parking will discourage people’s dependence on cars, especially in urban areas where other modes of transportation are available. This decreased dependence can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, thereby making a dent in the state’s largest source of air pollution.

Ethan Elkind directs the climate program for UC Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. He’s been an outspoken supporter of the philosophy behind the law. Along with reducing emissions, Elkind says that this law could encourage the creation of “more walkable, more climate-friendly” neighborhoods.

“We have to do everything we can to provide more homes for people, not cars,” Elkind says. “And that's what this bill ultimately was intended to do, is make sure we can really maximize the space for human beings, not for automobiles.”

Elkind says parking space requirements can prevent developers from moving forward with a project entirely. This is especially true, he says, if they’re working with a small piece of land in an urban area.

“Especially when you have parcels that are located close to transit, you want to make these transit-friendly, so you don't want to reserve a lot of the space for car storage,” he says. “You want to make sure that you're maximizing the space for people to be able to use these spots either to live there or to shop or dine.”

But opponents of the bill said that parking requirements give local governments leverage. Some argued that it allows cities to require developers to include affordable housing if they want fewer parking requirements. Others said the bill should pass only if developments had to include affordable housing to circumvent parking requirements.

But Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, says this isn’t really what’s happening. Manville co-wrote a letter addressing these concerns, before the bill passed the legislature, where he explained that these criticisms – although they have often been repeated in the past – aren’t backed by evidence.

“Developers make money by being able to build more units,” Manville says. “Not by being able to build less parking spaces.”

Importantly, the law does not ban the creation of parking spaces. And while developers might save some money, initially, by not creating parking spaces, Manville says they have to weigh that benefit with the potential that some people might not want to live in an area without parking.

So if a city wants a developer to include below-market-rate housing units that the other market-rate units will make up for financially, Manville says those market-rate units will have to be “top of the market.”

“Which means, in most of California, they have to have parking,” he says.

Manville says that San Diego provides a good example of the positive impacts of parking reform. The city abolished some parking requirements in 2019, and Manville says he’s seen an overall increase in housing developments since then, and more homes built through the city’s Density Bonus Program. This is a program where developers can take some regulatory concessions in exchange for creating more affordable housing.

The following year, in 2020, San Diego’s Density Bonus Program produced six times more affordable units than it had the previous year. Manville says the city’s results present a positive example of what could happen statewide.

“The evidence that this is going to somehow undermine affordable housing production in California is very, very slim and bordering on non-existent,” he says. “The evidence that parking requirements do a tremendous amount of damage to affordability, to sustainability, to efforts to just make our transportation system more human-scaled and safe is overwhelming.”

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