California Parking Bill Needs Revisions

Last week the California chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) upset several groups including the website Market Urbanism by writing a letter to its members asking for comment on California Assembly bill 904. One version of the bill is available here. The bill requires maximum parking standards for certain types of communities. APA’s letter to its California members includes the following:

APA California is not opposed to the concept of lower parking requirements near transit when a community decides it is right for them — the issue is that a one-sized-fits-all statewide standard is not appropriate.

AB 904, on and after January 1, 2014, would prohibit a city or county (including charter cities) from requiring minimum parking requirements in transit-intensive areas greater than the following:

[The bill authorizes] one parking space per 1000 square feet for nonresidential projects (including commercial, industrial, institutional, or any other nonresidential projects regardless of type of use); one parking space per unit for non-income-restricted residential projects; 75/100ths parking spaces per unit for projects that include both income restricted and non-income restricted units; 5/10ths parking spaces per unit for units that are deed restricted at least 55 years to rents or prices affordable to persons and families making less than 60% of area median income.

The definition of “transit-intensive area” means an area that is within 1/2 mile of a major transit stop or within 1/4 mile of the center line of a high-quality transit corridor included in a regional transportation plan, including a major transit stop such as a High Speed Rail transit stop) included in a regional transportation plan but not completed.

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.

The bill applies one standard to all types of transit (i.e. heavy-rail, light-rail, BRT, local bus, express bus, etc.) and all times of day. Local bus service serves different areas than BRT or rail. The plan also applies to any planned transit service in a regional plan including HSR. It can take years before a planned system is actually built. In some cases, planned systems are never built. Waiting on a proposed but unfunded HSR system is crazy. Many systems operate only during rush-hours, others on weekdays but not on weekends. Some communities are served by multiple line both bus and rail. Others are served by only one bus per day. Applying one blanket solution is not the best approach.

Although there are exemptions the criteria for meeting these exemptions is uncertain. According to the original version of the bill an area must prove it has insufficient walkability, insufficient transit service, that the lower standards undermine Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) or affordable housing and that the standards conflict with reduced off-street parking. In other words, a local area is exempt if it already has existing standards similar or more restrictive than the proposed standards. But if the area wants higher standards for 3 of the four reasons or because it believes transit will not work as well in that community, it appears there is no wiggle room. The bill’s author has stated that she intended for communities to be exempted if any ONE of the FOUR reasons are true, not ALL FOUR of the reasons. She will try to add an amendment to the bill. However, I am currently basing my interpretation of the actual language in the bill not the intended language.

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.

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.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Assistant Director of Transportation Policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. Feigenbaum has a diverse background researching and implementing transportation issues including revenue and finance, public-private partnerships, highways, transit, high-speed rail, ports, intelligent transportation systems, land use, and local policymaking.