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.