Over the next several weeks and months, I’ll be following with great interest the story about the planned development of a 50-unit apartment building with no on-site car parking. The reason for my fascination with this project is that absolutely nobody knows how this will shake out in terms of whether it attracts car-free residents and reduces automobile mode share, although apparently everybody has a guess or an opinion on the matter. But until something like this is tried, and tried in close-in Portland, it really is all guesswork.
Determining the parking demand for a new development falls squarely within the realm of traffic engineering, and to accomplish this, we generally turn to a publication of the Institute of Transportation Engineers, Parking Generation, for guidance. For low/mid-rise apartment buildings in an urban setting, Parking Generation tells me that the peak demand will be 1.2 parking spots per dwelling unit. Thus, to support a 50-unit building with no on-site parking, the neighborhood would have to accommodate about 60 new vehicles on-street (and a whopping 81 to meet 85th percentile demand)! So the neighbors are right to be up in arms, no?
To channel Lee Corso on this beautiful fall morning, not so fast my friend! A closer look at the data upon which this number is drawn is revealing. The urban areas where the study apartment units are located are Dallas, TX, San Francisco, CA, Syracuse, NY, Santa Barbara, CA, Long Beach, CA, Santa Monica, CA, and San Diego, CA. All but one–San Francisco–seems to be a city that drives significantly more than Portland. And the data from Frisco is from 1982! Remember rocking out to Olivia Newton John’s Physical and watching ET phone home? Morning in America? But I digress. Even the newest data in the set is now more than a decade old, with car havens Santa Monica and San Diego having contributed data in 2001, back in the good ol’ days of gas selling for less than a buck and a half per gallon.
Let me reiterate: this is the best available data that we have for parking demand. (Hence the old joke among number crunchers about the acronym for “best available data”). That’s why I opened by claiming that nobody really knows how this will shake out.
It is also important to note that for all of the apartment buildings in the study, on-site parking was provided to the tune of 1 space per dwelling unit on average. That this supply is filled and slightly exceeded at its peak is an instance of the concept of demand elasticity, a well known economic idea that applies to areas like transportation as well. Regarding transportation infrastructure, I call this the “Field of Dreams Principle:” Build a highway and people will drive on it, build a bike facility and people will ride in it, build a parking spot and people will park in it. As it pertains to parking in particular, Donald Shoup wrote a fantastic book on this topic, The High Cost of Free Parking, which should be required reading for anyone who wants to express a strong opinion on these parking-less apartments.
One other point worth making is that it’s hard to go very long these days without seeing some sort of article or paper on how the folks currently coming of age–the generation called millennials–prefer to live in more urban areas, drive less, and are less likely to own a car than any other recent generation. Increasingly, I’ve seen it argued that cell phones are replacing cars as the must-have rite of passage for teens and young adults, their way of socializing and their symbol of freedom and status. An apartment building like the one in question seems to be a fit for this new reality.
In a sense, I understand why homeowners in this area would be practicing a bit of NIMBY-ism regarding this project. I hope by this point I’ve convinced you that the actual amount of vehicular parking these apartments will require is truly unknown, and it’s a hard sell convincing people that their neighborhood is a good one for experimentation. But merely the fact that no on-site car parking is offered will restrict the parking demand of these apartments to some degree. Throw in some killer bike parking, maybe provide a transit pass with rent, get a bike-share station in front of your building, or really go pie in the sky and convince The Man to (finally) install a decent bike facility on Hawthorne, and all of a sudden I think it’s pretty likely that the on-street parking impacts would be minimal.
I’ll leave it to my planner friends to argue why more density without more cars would be a terrific thing for the city’s vibrancy, but it sure as hell sounds like a place where I’d want to live.