Exposed: America's Totally Inconsistent Minimum Parking Requirements

Policies differ wildly from city to city and from restaurants to places of worship.

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Architect Seth Goodman is on a mission to popularize the unglamorous topic of parking policy. To that end, he's produced a series of infographics that explore, in detail, the varied minimum parking requirement regulations of major U.S. cities.

So far, he’s tackled residential buildings, offices, restaurants, and places of worship. The project exposes just how confused American cities are about parking spaces. (Click any graphic in the story to see a full version.)

Some of Goodman's findings seem reasonable. For example, compared to requirements in Phoenix or San Diego, the low minimum parking requirements of Seattle and San Francisco may be spurred by geographic constraints — Seattle is caught between two major bodies of water and San Francisco is on a peninsula.


The orange bar represents an average 2,500 sq.ft restaurant and one black bar represents a 325 sq.ft. parking space.

Other findings are more perplexing. Here are some of them: 

  • There are striking disparities in parking requirements even between cities that are very close geographically, especially visible in the restaurants and worship space requirements. For example, Memphis and Nashville, as well as Colorado Springs and Denver have drastically different requirements despite being neighbors. Goodman writes on his blog that this inconsistency suggests "a lack of clear reasoning behind specific requirements". 

   
 


Left: The orange bar represents an average 2,500 sq.ft restaurant and one black bar represents a 325 sq.ft. parking space
Right: The purple bar represents an average 6,000 sq.ft place of worship and one black bar represents 10 parking spaces (3,250 sq.ft.)

 
  • Milwaukee requires more parking for worship spaces than for any of the other three building uses. 


L to R: Worship Space, Office Space, Restaurants, Living Space

 
 
 
  • On the other extreme, Denver's requirements for worship spaces are absurdly low compared to that of other cities, while its requirements for the other three building uses are comparable to that of other cities.  


L to R: Worship Space, Office Space, Restaurants, Living Space

 
 
 
  • Compared to requirements for other building uses, Pittsburgh's requirements for restaurant parking is especially low compared to that of other cities. 

Taking into account all four graphics, a few larger trends emerge: 

  • Minimum parking requirements vary greatly from city to city. Some cities are better at consistently requiring little parking (i.e. Seattle and Minneapolis), others consistently require more (i.e. San Jose and Columbus). Parking requirements also vary among different building uses within a single city. For example, from a space-to-parking ratio standpoint, Kansas City requires much more parking for restaurants than office buildings, Memphis requires much more parking for office buildings than restaurants, and Tuscon requires much more parking for restaurants than worship spaces. 
  • The space-to-parking ratio is the most alarming for worship spaces. Whereas the average living space to parking space and office space to parking space ratios are much closer to "1-to-1", the average 6,000-square-foot place of worship requires nearly 30,000 square feet parking space. 
  • Among all four building uses studied, cities tend to agree more on residential and office space parking -- requirements for those two uses do not range as widely across the country. 
  • Among all four building uses studied, San Francisco consistently had the lowest, if any, parking requirements.

The details in the graphics also provide an opportunity to nitpick how specific parking policies may have an impact urban planning priorities like walkability and equitability. For example, the Office Space vs. Parking Space graphic reveals that most large cities actually exempt their downtowns from the usual office space parking requirements. However, as Goodman writes on his blog, "in many of these cities, the relatively small footprint of these exempt areas has failed to achieve the critical mass necessary to create robust transit ridership and fully-functioning pedestrian-oriented communities."

Another question that can only come from analyzing parking so closely: Are some cities' worship space requirements more beneficial to one faith versus another? Houston, for example, requires one parking space for every five fixed seats, but in the absence of fixed seating, one parking space for every 40 square feet. Goodman writes via email the following scenario:

Now say there are two places of worship, a church and a mosque, that will each build a sanctuary space of 1000 square feet for 100 worshipers (10 square feet per person). The church will have 100 seats and the mosque will have space for 100 prayer rugs. 
 
The church has two options. It can choose to have moveable chairs in which case it will be required to provide 25 parking spaces (one for every 40 square feet), or it can choose to have fixed seats in which case it will only need to provide 20 spaces (one for every 5 fixed seats). Nothing has changed except for that the chairs are now bolted to the ground.
 
The mosque on the other hand has only one option. It cannot opt for fixed seats because seats are not conducive to Muslim worship services. Therefore the mosque must provide 25 spaces no matter what.

On the other extreme, Las Vegas might discourage fixed seating (i.e. pews) in worship spaces because the city requires one space for each four fixed seats but only one space for each 100 square feet. This means the same 1,000-square-foot space with fixed seating would require 25 parking spaces, but with moveable or no seats would only require 10 spaces.

A fifth installment on parking requirements for high schools is already in the works. 

Top image: Nikola Bilic /Shutterstock.com

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