Our state Senate had a major opportunity to move toward a more climate-secure and livable future, but instead allowed 1950s policies to continue to define cars as the main organizing and design principle of our communities.

The default thinking on the Peninsula is that every household needs one car per adult. But that assumption — which ignores people who can’t drive, or can’t afford cars — is a result of policy choices like mandatory parking minimums, which shape individual behaviors. 

Assembly Bill 1401, a state bill unceremoniously killed in the Senate Appropriations committee last week, would have eliminated minimum parking requirements within a half mile of major transit stops. It would’ve not only resulted in fewer cars on our roads and greenhouse gasses in our skies, but also reduced the cost of building sorely needed housing, and allowed new developments to look less like strip malls and more like charming, walkable neighborhoods built before the car boom.

Parking reform has been pursued in Sacramento as early as 2011, when AB 904 met a similar fate to this year’s bill. Another decade into our increasingly urgent and undeniable climate crisis, it’s maddening that our representatives still ignore the 10-ton asphalt elephant in our communities.

When my wife and I moved to the Bay Area, we lived in an apartment near downtown Menlo Park with only one parking space. Along with the city’s overnight street parking regulations, this led us to decide against getting a second car. I rode Caltrain to my job some days, my wife biked to hers other days, and most of our needs were met with a walk or bike downtown or along El Camino Real.

That transit-adjacent apartment was built in 1950, before parking minimums were commonplace. If built today, it would require nearly twice as many parking spaces, inducing us to buy a second car and use it for more trips, adding to emissions and traffic.

Instead, we saw that living near transit meant we could forgo the personal and environmental costs of a second car. Even when we moved to a building near downtown San Carlos with two parking spaces, we decided to remain a one-car household.

Our habits of walking, biking and taking public transit were directly shaped by the reduced availability of parking at home. Our experience tracks with research showing that even after controlling for factors like income, housing stock and transit accessibility, there is a correlation between guaranteed parking spots and increased car trips. 

To combat our climate emergency, we need to reject the idea that 70-year-old parking minimums — and the resulting dominance of cars — represent the way things always were, or the way things should be.

The cost of parking is often overlooked. According to the Bay Area policy think tank SPUR, each parking space generally adds between $25,000 to $50,000 to the cost of a housing unit in San Francisco. Researchers from Santa Clara University and the University of California, Los Angeles found that bundling garage space costs adds approximately 17% to a unit’s rent. 

Parking requires about 330 square feet per space, since cars need room not only to park, but also to maneuver. In California, with skyrocketing land costs, every square foot matters, not only because of financial cost, but also because of the opportunity cost for housing, greenspace or retail.

Parking minimums also turned much of our region into a sea of asphalt, and created sprawl that further incentivizes car use above more sustainable modes like walking, biking or public transit.

AB 1401 passed the Assembly, but died in Senate Appropriations without so much as a vote. The committee, chaired by Anthony Portantino, had the power to do this because of the bill’s $97K/year fiscal impact, a measly 0.00005% of the state budget. Now the state is left with our truly costly status quo.

For those concerned that the bill would’ve created parking disasters, it’s important to note that its language didn’t prevent developers from building parking, or institute any parking maximums.

Many forget that some people don’t drive due to age, disability or inability to afford a car. When the housing developer behind San Carlos’ Walnut Studios, a 100% deeply affordable transit-oriented project, faced concerns at a City Council meeting over having 20 parking spaces approved for 24 units of housing, it noted many of its clients don’t even own cars.

It is senseless to hold on to blunt, one-size-fits-all minimum parking tools. For the sake of climate safety, housing affordability and inclusivity, we must pass statewide parking reform.

David Tuzman is a member of the Caltrain Citizens Advisory Committee and the Peninsula Young Democrats.

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(7) comments

Terence Y

Mr. Tuzman – thank you for your letter and the update on AB 1401. I’m glad to see this nanny bill bit the dust, along with AB 904 a decade ago. You say you lived in a transit-adjacent apartment and decided against a second car due to having only one parking space and street parking regulations. It sounds like restrictions and inconvenience caused you to not get a second car, not that you didn’t want another vehicle. Others, especially families, may need a second car, not just for differing and time sensitive schedules, but to hold multiple bags of groceries. It doesn’t sound convenient to walk to the grocery store to buy a bag, or two of groceries, each day. Imagine an elder person doing the same, and with a load of fruits and vegetables.

You say a parking space adds $25k to $50k to the cost of a housing unit. That fee is minor compared to the higher building and development fees tacked on to a home, not including potentially mandatory electric-only appliances, or other nanny mandated requirements. And what about the potential inequity, inequality, racism, and discrimination inherent in this one-size-fits-all nanny policy forcing people to take inconvenient mass transportation and not own a car. Maybe that’s what you allude to when you reference Walnut Studios and how many of their clients don’t own cars? On the plus side, people with parking spaces they do not use can easily rent out the parking space to another resident. Extra money!


Your point about being able to rent out the space is cogent -- but in fact most apartment complexes don't allow that, and often nanny-state cities forbid it. Mandating that whatever parking does get built be unbundled from the housing, so that people can rent a unit _without_ a parking space if they want to, would be extremely helpful.

But your larger claim that AB 1401 was a "nanny bill" gets it backwards. The "nanny state" intervention here is city governments telling developers that they MUST build excessive amounts of parking, whether they want to or not. The _deregulatory_ policy here is to let homebuilders build as much parking as they think the market wants, and no more -- which is exactly what AB 1401 would've done.

Read Donald Shoup's "The High Cost of Free Parking" some time. Shoup comes at this from a very libertarian angle.


Terence Y

Mr. aurosharman – that’s an Interesting take on your assertion that city governments requiring mandatory parking minimums is the nanny. However, more information must be researched to determine the government’s stance on mandatory parking minimums. For instance was the minimum based on cars per capita? And then we need to determine what their definition of capita was (adults only, census population, state capita, national capita, etc.). If that is the case, parking minimums should increase, since car ownership per capita has probably increased. What is AB 904 based on? Any criteria? A desire to build more housing on a specific lot size – resulting in potentially higher property tax income?

Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll check out some of the reviews and if so inclined, I’ll spend some time looking it over. BTW, as for renting out parking spots, I’m not sure whether a formal contract is required between tenants. A barter system may be implemented. You can park in my assigned spot and should I need a car, I’ll borrow yours. Or a pizza a week, etc. I may be wrong, but I doubt this is covered in the fine print of a rental or lease contract.


I'm not sure which city you're in, so I couldn't say for absolute certain -- a small number of California cities have moved towards the pro-market policy of unbundled parking. But for the VAST majority of cities, the parking minimums on new housing are bundled. And apartments often enforce this by keeping resident parking completely separate from guest parking, and it's considered a violation of the security of other tenants if you give a key or access card for the tenant parking area to a non-tenant.

Regarding cars-per-capita type measurements, (a) car ownership is responsive to incentives. You wouldn't want to tear down all the existing complexes and build them back overnight with no parking, but if you're talking about one new complex? If you build that with less parking, then you'll attract people who already live a car-light to car-free lifestyle, as well as incentivizing some couples to sell their second car. And (b) you don't want to look at "cars per capita" or "cars per bedroom" for the whole region, you want to look at that specifically for the demographics of people who are moving into new units of the form factor being built. And we do have good studies on the kinds of households moving into new apartments along the El Camino corridor. People moving into new apartments near transit on El Camino own around 0.8 cars per bedroom.

Terence Y

Mr. aurosharman – thanks for the response and the explanations regarding cars-per-capita measurements. It seems like you’re proposing an a la carte approach based on demographics and lifestyle. Perhaps more data to support less parking minimums is in store before any changes are made. You include a statistic of 0.8 cars per bedroom for people moving into new apartments, but what about existing folks in apartments? How many cars per bedroom or per adult do they have? And where are they parking if they don’t have an assigned space? Local neighborhoods? The more this issue is delved into, even just between both of us, the more complicated it gets. And we know government can’t deal with complicated – sometimes they can’t even deal with easy. Maybe that’s why the status quo stays in effect. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?

BTW, you didn’t mention Mr. Shoup’s book is a veritable tome. I’ll need a Cliffs Notes version or I'll read some reviews to get the gist of what Mr. Shoup is trying to sell. I get the feeling that while some of Mr. Shoup’s ideas may have been acceptable 10 years ago, they may no longer be acceptable due to the current inequality, inequity, racism, etc. environment.

Dirk van Ulden

No David - we do not need or want Statewide regulations on parking. Some of us like to have a car or two and walking to the store is not always an option. Let's celebrate that this bill was surprisingly tanked by the Senate.


Do you need bathtub minimums for apartments, too? After all, some people like taking baths.

No, of course, that would be ridiculous. _Because_ many people like a nice bath, the businesses that construct housing will build many units that have baths. What you're saying is equivalent to insisting that it should be _illegal_ for anyone to build a unit that has only a shower stall, which would thus be smaller and more affordable. If you're somebody who doesn't care about taking a long bath, and would in fact prefer to save the money, or if you're so crunched for cash that it's either rent the smaller unit or be pushed out of the region entirely, well, too bad for you.

I know many people who do not own cars. My two best friends at work both do what Mr. Tuzman here does, sharing one car within a couple. (And these are highly-paid engineers, they _could_ get a second car if they wanted, they just have arranged their lives to not need it, so they can save more, to be able to buy a house, have a kid, etc.) We also rent to a friend in my household who's around 50, and has never even gotten a driver's license, he just bikes and takes transit. People like that exist. The policy you're advocating effectively taxes them, to subsidize those who want more cars. And in the process, it imperils the future for all of us. A world where we've solved the climate problem is a world where many, many more people find that the easiest choice is to arrange their lives with fewer car trips and more use of alternatives (walk, bike, transit).

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