A far-too-long rebuttal of Randal O’Toole on parking

Houston <3 parking minimums

Houston <3 parking minimums

Donald Shoup and Randal O’Toole – they just can’t get enough of each other! Donald Shoup, you may recall, is the granddaddy of free market parking policy, and Randal O’Toole is the self-styled Antiplanner. Though they both claim to be libertarians, they seem to have some pretty fundamental disagreements, which we heterodox libertarians at Market Urbanism can relate to. Shoup has made a career out of pointing out the sprawl-enhancing effects of minimum parking regulations and under-priced on-street parking, whereas O’Toole’s made his on the idea that sprawl is the free market equilibrium and that smart growth, not anti-density NIMBYism, isthe greatest threat to free markets in land.

They’ve sparred before in a roundabout way, with Randal O’Toole replying to Tyler Cowen’s very Shoupian NYT column and then Shoup posting a three-part rebuttal to that (which I wasn’t totally onboard with, surprisingly), but I think this Cato Unbound issue is the first time they’re being published head-on. It’ll also also include friend and former Market Urbanism contributer Sandy Ikeda, whose opinion I’m excited to read, along with Clifford Winston of Brookings. Shoup’s contribution was good, though probably familiar to Market Urbanism readers. But it’s O’Toole’s that I want to talk about.

There’s a lot about what he wrote that I take issue with, but to keep this post to a manageable length (I could easily make my reply to O’Toole a three-part series), I’ll stick to this paragraph. O’Toole is arguing that in most of America, parking minimums don’t contribute to sprawl since developers would build that much parking anyway:

To find out what cities would be like without minimum-parking requirements, we must turn to Texas, where counties aren’t even allowed to zone, much less impose minimum-parking requirements. This means developers are free to build for the market, not for urban planners. While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction. The result, as anyone who as toured Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio knows, is large amounts of low-density development supported by plenty of off-street parking, all without minimum-parking requirements (at least outside of city limits).

The first sentence is misleading, at best. His wiggle-room comes from that easily-missed parenthetical reference at the end of the paragraph, where he admits that his analysis only applies “outside of city limits” – but even then, he’s still wrong. Eliza Harris at My [Urban] Generation does the heavy lifting and looks into a random sample of Texas counties cities (see edit at bottom) and finds that all of the ones she looks at have parking minimums:

Review of every tenth TX ordinance on municode.com starting with Addison, TX. Bonus cities: Houston, Alamo Heights, and Balch Springs. No code reviewed lacked off-street parking requirements. Full zoning code for Henrietta TX could not be found however code refers to “parking consistent with and adequate for the use proposed” under regulation of alleys.

Which brings me to O’Tooles caveat – “at least outside of city limits.” But as Eliza also mentions, dense development – the kind that would benefit from not having to adhere to parking minimums – must occur in already built-up places, so the fact that it’s allowed (which it’s at least sometimes actually not) in places that aren’t built-up is really not very helpful or relevant. O’Toole is basically saying that you can go ahead and build parking-less new developments – as long as it’s in a place that not even the most wide-eyed first-year planning student would think to build. Without actually delving into the codes myself, Michael Lewyn’s study of land use regulation in Houston (academic version here, shorter article here) gives some examples of parking minimums that seem just as high as, if not higher than, the average American zoning code.

Beyond parking, I also take issue with O’Toole’s assertion that Texas cities’ land use restrictions are “minimal.” Houston is the city that’s usually cited as the most unregulated, and as far as I can tell, the story of “unzoned Houston” started with Bernard Siegan’s Land Use Without Zoning published in 1972. Analyses published more recently, though, conclude that despite rejection of the formal “zoning” label, land use in Houston is indeed very much regulated. In addition to the numerous land use restrictions that Lewyn cites in his study, a 2010 law review article (.pdf) presents a few vignettes describing land use mechanisms in Houston, including “voluntary” deed restrictions that can be renewed with far less than 100% agreement from all affected landowners, and subdivisions in which 51% of your neighbors can prohibit you from splitting your land. And then there was the Ashby Highrise controversy, where an arbitrary traffic study eventually led to victory for the NIMBYs, and sent a clear message to developers that, to misquote O’Toole, they are not free to build for the market if the market wants density.

But of all my objections to that one paragraph, I’d have to say that this sentence is the one that bothers me the most:

While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction.

Sound familiar? It’s the essential justification for zoning. I don’t buy it, and I didn’t think Randal did either. But I guess Texans are just so laissez-faire that even their socialism is efficient.

Edit: It looks like I made a mistake in saying that Eliza a bunch of randomly selected Texas counties and found that they all had parking minimums – they were in fact cities, which O’Toole admits have minimums. However, she did look at two counties, and both of those also had parking minimums, under the subdivision codes. As O’Toole points out, they don’t have “zoning,” but the subdivision regulations seem to be the functional equivalent.

Edit II: Turns out Hidalgo County, a poor (but growing) county in the Rio Grande Valley on the Mexican border, also has minimum parking requirements. Yet another strike against O’Toole. I tried to look up the regulations for the other Rio Grande Valley counties – all of which are very poor, and presumably have relatively low car ownership rates – but it doesn’t look like any of them have the information online.

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  • http://man-with-the-silver-gun.myopenid.com/ Contemplationist

    But I guess Texans are just so laissez-faire that even their socialism is efficient.

    Hah, great line

  • Robert Steuteville

    Typical double talk from O’Toole. To find out what things would be like without minimum parking requirements, he points to three cities WITH minimum parking requirements. Then he tags on “outside of cities,” when in fact all three examples ARE cities. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. I’m not surprised that every Texas city examined — and some of these “cities” are in fact suburbs like Addison — has minimum offstreet parking requirements. In my experience, these regulations are in place coast to coast, in both cities and suburbs. There are only a few cities that are starting to experiment with eliminating parking minimums and/or going to parking maximums. If the developers would build this parking anyway, why are the regulations in place? But that’s an absurd premise, based on the idea that every developer would build sprawl if they could. When developers are building walkable urbanism, they would gladly take the option of building less parking in many cases.

  • Anonymous

    While I’m not a Libertarian, I find the O’Toole’s suggestion that “parking regulations are OK if they would be followed anyway” to be utterly contrary to Libertarians principles. That’s kind of like stating that mandatory school prayer in Texas isn’t so bad, because everyone (or almost everyone) will be praying anyway, and making it mandatory is simply acknowledging common practice.

  • Guest

    Robert Steuteville, what cities in US are starting to experiment to not have parking minimum as you describe?

  • Patrick

    If we ignore people like O’Toole, would they just go away? How do we convince the world that they have no credibility?

  • awp

    “To find out what cities would be like without minimum-parking requirements, we must turn to Texas, where counties aren’t even allowed to zone”

    I have a new idea now. Anytime we are discussing the impact of a law lets look at a place where that law doesn’t matter. Since it would be okay in the middle of nowhere Texas, we should get rid of all laws against randomly shooting guns. Since I doubt that many, if any, counties in Texas have laws about maximum density, and they aren’t filling up with high-rises, it wouldn’t matter if suburbs and cities dropped their laws about max density. Hey I like that last idea, still bad logic though.

    I never understand the implicit argument that you touch on at the end. “This law doesn’t actually do anything, so we should keep it.”

  • Anonymous

    San Francisco’s history of regulations: http://livablecity.org/campaigns/parkinghistory.html

    Here’s the summary:

    A decade of change

    Eisenhower-era parking requirements still prevail across most of San Francisco, but the city’s most recent plans and policy changes are embracing new thinking about the role of reduced parking in creating livable and sustainable cities. The 1970’s saw the emergence of the environmental, historic preservation, and livable streets movements that offered a strong critique of automobile dependence. The opening of BART in 1973 provided the impetus for limiting commuter parking in San Francisco’s growing downtown, which resulted in the first parking limits as part of the city’s Downtown Plan.

    Most of the reductions in parking requirements have occurred over the last decade. Between 1968 to 1997, every neighborhood in the city had a minimum residential parking requirement, no neighborhood had a residential maximum, and only one neighborhood (downtown) placed an upper limit on the amount of non-residential parking. By the end of 2007, Downtown (C-3), Rincon Hill, and Mission Bay allow car-free housing by right (car-free housing is allowed in the Tenderloin, but only with special permission from the zoning administrator), and all three neighborhoods have both residential and non-residential maximums. With the adoption of the Market and Octavia Neighborhood plan this year, and if the Eastern Neighborhoods plans are adopted this year, a significant swath of the city will have swapped minimum parking requirements for parking maximums.

    In addition to reducing parking requirements, the city has developed a toolkit of complementary development requirements to reduce automobile dependence, including unbundling parking costs from housing costs, bicycle parking requirements, and requiring car share spaces in large new developments.

  • Anonymous

    I think the reasoning goes like this: there is a lot of free parking everywhere–more than is needed. Someone constructing a new building would reason (correctly) that he could save a lot of money by not constructing parking– customers and residents could park on the street, or next door. Once enough people do that, there is no longer a surplus of parking, and you have to start charging for it/controlling access. And that’s the end of the world.

  • Anonymous

    I think the reasoning goes like this: there is a lot of free parking everywhere–more than is needed. Someone constructing a new building would reason (correctly) that he could save a lot of money by not constructing parking– customers and residents could park on the street, or next door. Once enough people do that, there is no longer a surplus of parking, and you have to start charging for it/controlling access. And that’s the end of the world.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    To be fair, O’Toole isn’t saying that we should keeping parking minimums. He’s just saying that we shouldn’t bother writing about them and trying to repeal them, and instead should focus our efforts on the anti-sprawl laws. Or, at least I guess that’s his message to self-described libertarians like me.

  • Patrick

    “Once enough people do that, there is no longer a surplus of parking, and you have to start charging for it/controlling access. And that’s the end of the world. ”

    If only we had some mechanism for controlling the distribution of resources! But where would we find such a thing!?

  • Alon Levy

    In Manhattan south of Harlem, parking minimums were replaced by parking maximums a few decades ago, as an air quality measure. In Harlem, Washington Heights, and some of the denser neighborhoods of the rest of the city, the zoning code exempts small buildings from parking requirement.

  • Anonymous

    Additionally, it’s interesting to compare the actual ordinances. Here, for instance, are Houston’s: http://library.municode.com/HTML/10123/level4/COOR_CH26PA_ARTVIIIOREPALO_DIV2REPASP.html#TOPTITLE

    and San Francisco’s (+more): http://www.committeeof100.net/Download-document/86-Attachments-to-Testimony-Regarding-Comprehensive-Zoning-Regulations-Rewrite-Parking/Loading-post-h.html

    What’s noteworthy is that SF’s minimums are WAY lower. SF requires 1 space per residential unit of any size, while Houston requires 1.25-2/unit. A 6-classroom elementary school in Houston requires 9 spaces– SF requires one. An 18-classroom high school– Houston 171, SF 9 (!).

    The other notable thing about SF’s requirements for commercial spaces is that, in almost every case, they don’t apply to small businesses. For instance, for restaurants, Houston requires 8 spaces/1000 square feet. SF requires 5. But in SF if your restaurant is under 5000 square feet, which all but the largest are, you’re excused from any parking requirements at all.

  • Jim654

    I don’t understand how you think you have rebutted O’Toole’s point about minimum parking requirements at all. Eliza Harris’s citations of parking regulations in Texas city ordinances are irrelevant given O’Toole’s “at least outside of city limits” qualifier. And out of the 254 counties in Texas, she managed to find a grand total of 2 that may, sorta-kinda, have minimum parking regulations (at least one of the linked county documents explicitly states that it is a set of “recommendations only” rather than a legally binding set of requirements.). She’s nitpicking.

    O’Toole does not deny that minimum parking regulations may result in more parking than the market would provide in congested urban areas. And in fact he clearly states that he thinks parking should be priced at market rates in such places so that the regulations can be eliminated. His point is that most urban development in America is not dense, and there is little evidence that minimum parking requirements are binding in the suburbs where most Americans actually live.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    The point you make in the last sentence is one I want to address in a post of its own (and I do hope you’ll comment when I do!), but I’d like to defend Eliza’s research: When you say “she managed to find a grand total of two,” you’re implying that she may have cherrypicked the data, ignoring a bunch of counties that didn’t have parking minimums. This, however, is not the impression that I got – I think those two counties are in fact the only ones she looked at.

  • Awp

    “The problem is that America is suffering from an elitist backlash against low-density development, and that backlash is leading to all sorts of absurd rules such as urban-growth boundaries that create artificial land shortages, maximum-parking limits, and subsidies to high-density development. Dr. Shoup’s rhetoric, if not his actual proposals, feeds that backlash.”

    He appears to be trying to say that by arguing against market interference he likes we are helping those arguing for market interference he doesn’t like.

  • Robert Steuteville

    In addition to the example that Alon Levy mentions, Washington DC and Portland OR are two examples, but I don’t have the details without some research.

  • Robert Steuteville

    But of course most development takes place in “congested urban areas,” inside or outside of city limits. O’Toole implies that he is talking about development in and around Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, where much of the development has taken place inside of city limits for the last 50 years or so. Addison, TX, is outside of the city limits of Dallas, and yet it has parking requirements. If O’Toole is not talking about the cities — which are huge, suburban places — or their suburbs, what is he talking about, and relevance does it have?

    The fact that development is NOT dense in and around these cities is largely the result of regulations like minimum parking requirements, setbacks, street standards, and minimum lots sizes, and highway construction and other government activities, so he makes a circular argument.

  • Robert Steuteville

    But of course most development takes place in “congested urban areas,” inside or outside of city limits. O’Toole implies that he is talking about development in and around Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, where much of the development has taken place inside of city limits for the last 50 years or so. Addison, TX, is outside of the city limits of Dallas, and yet it has parking requirements. If O’Toole is not talking about the cities — which are huge, suburban places — or their suburbs, what is he talking about, and relevance does it have?

    The fact that development is NOT dense in and around these cities is largely the result of regulations like minimum parking requirements, setbacks, street standards, and minimum lots sizes, and highway construction and other government activities, so he makes a circular argument.

  • http://myurbangeneration.wordpress.com/ Eliza

    O’Toole “counties aren’t even allowed to zone, much less impose minimum-parking requirements”

    O’Toole’s statement clearly implies that NO counties impose minimum parking requirements and that they are not permitted to do so. It only takes ONE example to prove that the former is totally in accurate and unless these two counties are acting in contradiction to Texas law then the latter is inaccurate. Period. If O’Toole wants to provide evidence that “most” counties don’t impose minimum requirements then I will consider putting in the more extensive time to required to rebut that statement (I do have a job after all).

    It should be on him to provide accurate facts on which to base his conclusions, which he has thus far failed miserably to do. He has provided broad generalizations that have proved to be totally inaccurate. He also clearly conflates the city/county issue in his own writing making him a conveniently moving target. By the way many “suburbs” are within city limits.

    Apologies to the Stephen for the city/county ambiguity. The more extensive research was done in response to an earlier O’Toole article and was intended as an appendix.

    -Eliza

  • http://myurbangeneration.wordpress.com/ Eliza

    If Texas counties are effectively imposing parking requirements through subdivisions requirements or other permitting processes or even guidelines and negotiations or through cities “extra-territorial jurisdictions” rather than zoning then it’s O’Toole that’s nitpicking. The fact is I don’t think he even knows.

  • Jim654

    “But of course most development takes place in “congested urban areas,” inside or outside of city limits.”

    No it doesn’t. Most development takes place in low-density suburbs and exurbs, where land is cheap and parking minimums are unlikely to result in much, if any, more parking space than the market would provide on its own. That’s O’Toole’s central point. That, and the fact that because parking is cheap in most places it makes more sense to bundle the cost than to price it separately.

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  • http://www.metairievets.gardnerrealtors.com/ metairie sale for homes

    Anytime we are discussing the impact of a law lets look at a place where
    that law doesn’t matter. Since it would be okay in the middle of
    nowhere Texas, we should get rid of all laws against randomly shooting
    guns. Since I doubt that many, if any, counties in Texas have laws
    about maximum density, and they aren’t filling up with high-rises, it
    wouldn’t matter if suburbs and cities dropped their laws about max
    density. Hey I like that last idea, still bad logic though.

  • Jacob Lynn

    High parking requirements in urban areas force that development to the suburbs (or are a major contributing factor, among other regulatory taxes).

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