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Minneapolis has a surprisingly simple plan to cut traffic and make housing more affordable

Glorious Minneapolis.
Glorious Minneapolis.
(Mike Appel)

For a long time in Minneapolis, almost everyone who wanted to build a new apartment complex was required to add one parking spot for every unit in the building — whether or not residents wanted one.

There was an exception for a small area downtown, but not for outlying neighborhoods served by light rail and bus systems. And all these unneeded or unwanted parking spots would add to the cost of construction, drive up rent, encourage driving, and take up valuable land as they sat empty. This sort of minimum parking requirement is the law in almost every city across the country.

Now, however, Minneapolis's City Council has voted to eliminate the parking requirement for many new buildings.

Small or midsize buildings that are within walking distance (specifically, a quarter-mile) of a rail or bus line no longer have to build any off-street parking at all. Large buildings (those with 50 or more units) now only have to provide one space for every two units.

It's not perfect, but it's a huge step in the right direction — and one that other cities nationwide should follow if they care about providing affordable housing or reducing traffic.

The huge cost of "free" parking

parking garage

(David McNew/Getty Images)

Cities originally created minimum parking requirements because they didn't want residents' cars clogging up street parking. Mandating the construction garages or off-street lots would ensure that didn't happen.

But in practice, parking is an urban real estate amenity that responds to demand just as well as, say, fitness centers or pools. If residents are looking for buildings with parking, developers are free to provide it — and even though the requirement was eliminated in downtown Minneapolis years ago, most developers have continued to do so.

But a strict requirement means that every building has to include parking whether residents want it or not. Typically, the cost of that parking then gets built into the rent. It might not seem like a big deal, but in Washington, DC, the underground spots many developers use to comply with these requirements each cost between $30,000 and $50,000 to build.

This makes housing less affordable — especially for low-income residents who are least likely to own cars in the first place. It also subsidizes driving, spurring further development that's based around the car, such as stores that provide free parking, effectively building its cost into the price of their goods.

"The worst thing that many American cities have done, for low-income people, is create a world in which you need a car," retired UCLA economist Donald Shoup told me in an interview last year. "Parking pushes everything farther apart, and even if you're too poor to own a car, you have to pay for all the free parking you don't use."

buffalo parking (CityLab)

Downtown Buffalo, New York, a city that's recently eliminated some minimum parking requirements due to excess parking. (CityLab)

There's also some evidence that free parking makes people more likely to drive, increasing traffic. One study found that people who live in residences in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that have minimum parking requirements are significantly more likely to drive to work in Manhattan (compared with others who live and work in the same areas).

Finally, parking requirements often end up wasting valuable space on unnecessary empty lots and garages, hurting cities as a whole. A 2014 study found that for each parking spot — taking up space that could otherwise be occupied by a taxpaying business — the city of Hartford gives up about $1,200 in tax revenue annually, for a total loss of $50 million. In some cities, huge percentages of increasingly empty downtowns have been given over to surface lots in order to comply with these requirements.

All of which is to say: Minneapolis, like a handful of other cities, is taking a very positive step in relaxing its parking requirements. What it really needs to do is eliminate them entirely.

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