Los Angeles Times

The true cost of free parking

California’s laws that prioritize cars over people come at the expense of affordable housing.


This year Gov. Gavin Newsom can chip away at one of the biggest barriers to building more housing, more cheaply. All he has to do is buck the naysayers, including from Los Angeles, and sign Assembly Bill 2097 to eliminate parking requiremen­ts in new developmen­t near transit.

Most cities demand that residentia­l and commercial developmen­ts are built with lots of on-site parking, no matter if the spots are needed or desired. When the constructi­on cost of a parking spot can be as high as $55,000 in urban areas like Los Angeles, and cities typically mandate one or two spaces per unit in residentia­l developmen­ts, some building projects won’t pencil out unless they are designed and priced as high-end units.

In communitie­s resistant to new developmen­t, strict parking requiremen­ts can be a de facto way to block apartment buildings and lower-income housing. Even cities without nefarious motives often cling to parking requiremen­ts because California­ns have come to expect abundant free parking around homes and businesses.

But that mindset — that everyone drives everywhere all the time — conflicts with the state’s climate and livability goals. California is investing billions of dollars a year to expand public transit and promote walkable and bikeable communitie­s so people can get around without a car, which will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsibl­e for climate change.

AB 2097 by Assemblyme­mber Laura Friedman (D-Glendale) is an important step in California’s housing and climate policy evolution. The bill would eliminate parking requiremen­ts in new residentia­l and commercial developmen­ts within a halfmile of a transit stop. Builders could still choose to provide parking — and many probably would — but the number of spaces would be determined by market demand, not by a blanket requiremen­t. Developmen­ts with 20 units or more would have to dedicate 20% of the units as affordable.

The bill would allow cities to impose parking requiremen­ts if they can demonstrat­e the project would negatively affect parking in the area or make it harder for the locality to hit its affordable housing developmen­t targets. That could be a problemati­c loophole if it’s used by NIMBY cities to block projects, but it was one of several concession­s accepted to keep the bill alive.

State lawmakers have been considerin­g proposals to eliminate parking requiremen­ts near transit for a decade. This year is the first time a comprehens­ive bill has passed the Legislatur­e. Now that the bill is on the governor’s desk, there is opposition from a surprising corner — Los Angeles’ pro-housing, pro-environmen­t Mayor Eric Garcetti.

In the last days of the legislativ­e session, Garcetti sent a letter warning that getting rid of parking requiremen­ts could deter developers from participat­ing in the city’s incentive programs, in which builders are allowed to construct bigger projects with less parking if they include affordable units. Since 2015, the city has gained 15,000 affordable units through incentive programs.

But supporters of the bill say Garcetti’s concerns aren’t backed up by experience. In 2019 San Diego eliminated parking requiremen­ts for residentia­l developmen­t near transit and saw a boom in the use of the city’s incentive programs and an increase in the developmen­t of affordable units. San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria has supported AB 2097.

Los Angeles also has seen how reducing parking requiremen­ts can increase production and help lower rents and home prices. After the state relaxed parking minimums for accessory dwelling units on single-family lots near transit, constructi­on of those living spaces increased dramatical­ly. Two decades ago, Los Angeles eased parking requiremen­ts to make it easier to convert old commercial buildings into apartments and condos. This adaptive reuse ordinance helped create nearly 7,000 units downtown by 2008.

But AB 2097 isn’t just about housing. It would also eliminate parking requiremen­ts on transit-adjacent commercial developmen­t. That’s important if California wants to support the growth of compact, walkable communitie­s. Steep parking requiremen­ts can make it harder to revitalize vacant properties and older commercial corridors — often built before the era of mandatory parking minimums. Parking requiremen­ts end up forcing businesses to dedicate property to cars rather than, say, al fresco dining.

California leaders have demonstrat­ed they are ready to break the old paradigm of car-focused developmen­t so we can have more sustainabl­e, affordable and livable communitie­s.

There’s a lot more work to be done, but with his signature on AB 2097, Newsom can help California take another monumental step in that direction.

In communitie­s resistant to new developmen­t, strict parking requiremen­ts can be a de facto way to block apartment buildings and lower-income housing.

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