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Rapid Urbanization Versus The Car

Mike Rollison

We embrace mixed-use projects, transit options and walkability are critical to the success of cities.

For the first time in the history of our planet over half of the global population, 3.5 billion people, reside in cities. More importantly, this number is expected to double by 2050. In the US over 80 percent of our population live in urban areas. This rapid densification is an important Changing Pattern of Society Torti Gallas + Partners is committed to solving in coming decades.

Our practice takes us to a variety of locations around the globe. The majority of our commissions are found in urban areas, therefore affording our planners and designers opportunities to improve the quality of life for residents and guests in cities. One of the primary challenges we face in these locations is parking– more specifically minimum parking requirements imposed upon developments by jurisdictions. Too often the parking of automobiles drives the design solution.

Granted, many jurisdictions across the US - from Los Angeles, California to Seattle, Washington and from Boston, Massachusetts  to Arlington, Virginia - have made great strides in reducing the minimum requirements for parking. Although we are recognizing mixed-use developments can and should share parking between uses, there is still much work to do. Too often over-parking is costly to our developer clients and prohibits density. Excess dollars are spent on building parking spaces in urban settings and these costs are passed onto the residents – often those who can least afford the cost.

Recent studies have estimated a single parking space constructed in Washington, DC costs a developer $22,000. This podium-style building requires additional construction costs related to façade upgrade costs associated with screening these above ground garages – to make them look less like garages. Yes, this is an appropriate “ask” by the jurisdictions and improves the aesthetic of the built environment, but it only adds to the resident’s rent each month. When building underground parking spaces this number jumps to an average of $29,000 for a single parking space in Washington DC. It should be noted that construction costs in Washington, DC are well below the national average.

Perhaps most egregious of the minimum parking requirements as they relate to land use is retail. Leasing representatives busy working deals with anchor tenants (department stores, fitness tenants, grocery stores, etc.) know firsthand the challenges of reducing retail parking requirements. Historically these tenants argue their parking requirements for the peak shopping days of the year – namely Black Friday. Their rationale is if customers cannot find a parking space the store will lose sales. However, the majority of the year these parking facilities create heat islands and additional emissions which are harmful to the environment while their oversized parking fields create excess runoff due to the proliferation of impervious surfaces.

Nowhere is Smart Growth more necessary than our urban areas. At Torti Gallas + Partners we embrace mixed-use projects – especially near transit – because we understand providing transit options and walkability is critical to the success of our cities. Curbing habits of residents in our cities to rely less on the car is a primary goal in our changing society. However, living in an urban area becomes cost prohibitive due to the construction costs for parking that are passed on to the resident.

A distinct change in our society recently, however, is the marked increase in households living without cars. As of 2015, 9.1% of US households were car-free, but these numbers jump drastically in urban areas – 56% in New York City, 38% in Washington DC, and 37% in Boston. This begins to beg the question, “Why must I pay for parking each month if I do not own a car?”

For our population, considering moving closer to the our cities for transit options, walkability, living more sustainably, and improving quality of life, perhaps it’s time for the design and development community to begin working with the jurisdictions to take the next steps in truly achieving Smart Growth?

True thought leadership should employ providing financial incentives to go carless and reduce construction costs for developers thereby adding more density where it is most appropriate.

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