Libertarians at the Reason Foundation oppose latest California parking minimum reform bill

From Baruch Feisenbaum, who’s the Reason Foundation’s transportation analyst (disclaimer: I did an internship at Reason magazine a few years ago), surprising agreement with the American Planning Association’s California branch on the parking minimum reform bill (or at least, it surprised me):

The proposed bill has both positives and negatives. The positives include introducing a market-based approach to parking, allowing local governments to set higher standards if it is appropriate for the community, granting certain exemptions to the law including rent control and deed-restricted housing and using substantially more quantitative standards than the old ITE approach. (Under the ITE standards, there were multiple categories for each business using insufficient data points and low r-squared values. For example, adult entertainment had multiple categories. The nude dancing category had separate subcategories for different types of nude dancing including fully nude, partially nude, etc.)

However, there are significant problems with the bill that outweigh its positives. First, the bill sets a statewide standard. California is one of the largest, most diverse states in the country. What is effective in San Francisco may not work in Truckee, CA.

He also takes issue with the fact that the bill was sponsored by the California Infill Builders Association (disclaimer: I’m friendly with Mott Smith, who runs the group), which obviously stands to gain from reduced minimum parking requirements:

The bill is sponsored by the California Infill Builders Association. The association is a trade group working to increase infill housing. As parking spaces cost money, for developers to be able to build these apartments/houses they need something in return. The something could be lower parking standards. Parking should be priced and I understand the desire for infill housing. However, the bill would be best originating from someone without a stake in the game. Such legislation can then be reviewed by a university researcher, the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, and another independent party. The only professional transportation group that has weighted in, APA, is not a strong supporter of the bill.

Finally, he sides with APA California:

This bill presents a big government solution to a government created problem. Free market solutions should operate outside of big government meddling. If the government is restricting free-market parking pricing (which it is) the bill should end subsidies to automobile drivers and developers. All transportation modes should operate on an equal plane. Creating a subsidy to counter another subsidy is both expensive and counterintuitive.

Assemblyman Nancy Skinner deserves credit for trying to encourage market-based pricing. And APA California could be more open to the concept. However, this bill is a big government state-imposed solution that may or may not offer exemptions, does not consider the different geographies of the state and does not separate existing from current transit service. As written this bill needs substantial changes. If the author’s amendment passes, it still has some significant aspects that need fine tuning before it should be considered on a statewide basis.

Stam Staley, a senior research fellow at the Reason Foundation, said on Twitter that he agrees with Baruch.

First of all, regarding the fact that developers are sponsoring the group, as long as they’re being honest about their involvement with the bill, I see no problem with it. The APA’s members obviously also have a stake in the legislation: the state of California is trying to reign in their powers to regulate land use. Does Baruch have a problem with the fact that airline deregulation was spurred by lawsuits by Southwest?

But more importantly, I think there’s a slippery slope in saying that state governments should not infringe on their localities’ abilities to infringe upon private property rights. Libertarians often advocate devolving government to the lowest level possible, but there are certain instances – this one included, in my opinion – where decentralization and libertarianism clash. I tend to come down on the side of libertarianism, local autonomy be damned, but it looks like Baruch and Sam have come to a different conclusion here.

But how far are they willing to take that principle? Do Baruch and Sam also oppose state-level laws that emerged after the Supreme Court’s Kelo ruling that limit localities’ abilities to take land by eminent domain for private use? What about Massachusetts’ 1995 state referendum that ended Boston, Cambridge, and Brookline’s locally-enacted rent control laws? Does lowest-level-governance always trump free markets, or do they draw the line somewhere?

I should also say that I’m a bit disturbed by the fact that Baruch thinks that parking minimums are okay so long as they’re based on something more sophisticated than the standard ITE numbers. Is he basically saying that bureaucrats telling developers how much parking they must include on their private property is okay, so long as the bureaucrats are using a good model?

  • hamilt0n

    When Baruch says the bill establishes “maximum parking standards” is he saying the bill imposes a limit on the number of parking spaces someone can build, or the bill places a limit on the minimums imposed by local planners?

    It seems like most of the discussion on here is about the latter, but his inconsistent use of language makes it unclear if the former is included in the bill.

  • RC

    If the position is that government should be devolved to the “lowest level possible,” and the Libertarian concedes that the federal government has a valid, if very limited, function, what role does that leave for state power? One of the author’s arguments (that the statewide parking law is bad because different cities have different needs) could apply to many types of statewide laws.

  • Matthew Yglesias

    One interesting point here is that according to its website, the “Reason Foundation advances a free society by developing, applying, and promoting libertarian principles, including individual liberty, free markets, and the rule of law.” There’s nothing in there about local control.

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