In the past two decades transit oriented development (TOD)—compact, walkable, and mixed-use development centered around high quality transit—has become an increasingly popular approach to tackle the urban ills of traffic congestion, lack of affordable housing, and neighborhood disinvestment. However, restrictive land use regulations like minimum parking requirements have thwarted the success of many TOD projects by compromising the quality of project design and the surrounding built environment with parking.
Parking requirements are problematic for TOD because (1) excessive parking incentivizes driving and works against the purpose of TOD, which is encouraging people to shift from driving to transit and making destinations more accessible by walking; and (2) land in proximity of a transit station is the most valuable and holds most potential for housing and retail, but much of this prime real-estate is wasted on underutilized parking.
So how much (less) parking should be required for transit-oriented development? To answer this question, Professor Reid Ewing and his team at the University of Utah studied parking occupancy, trip counts, and travel behaviors at five TODs in the U.S.:
- Englewood, CO in the Denver region;
- Wilshire/Vermont station in Los Angeles
- Fruitvale Transit Village in Oakland
- The Redmond, WA station in the Seattle region;
- Rhode Island Row in Washington, DC.
In a newly released report, the researchers concluded that the five TODs in the study generated considerably fewer trips and used less parking compared to the Institute of Traffic Engineers (ITE) guidelines. In addition to having much less parking than the ITE guidelines, the actual parking utilization during peak times was considerably lower than the supply, between 58 and 84 percent. The findings suggest that existing professional engineering standards and local regulations result in parking over-prescription, stifling the development of housing and other valuable uses near transit stations.
What can Portland learn from the findings of this study?
Lessons For Portland From Five TODs
1. TOD is likely to fail if it is built to accommodate cars
The Englewood TOD had the lowest peak parking occupancy rate—58 percent. This oversupply of parking is the result of negotiations with Walmart, which insisted that residential development provide a 1.5 parking spaces per dwelling unit ratio (instead of 1 parking space per dwelling unit proposed by the City) to prevent residential parking from spilling into retail lots.
Englewood turned out to be an auto-oriented TOD. Sixty percent of trips to the site are done by cars, and it had the lowest rail mode share—14 percent. Consequently, the civic center and ground floor retail area directly adjacent to the transit station has struggled to generate activities and foot traffic. Ironically, the more auto-oriented commercial areas with lots of surface parking and further away from the station performed better. The study concludes that “TODs may not achieve their full potential if designed for the automobile in a hybrid configuration like Englewood’s”.
I wrote about the Peloton Apartments and the ludicrousness of offering free parking while charging $1,800 for a one-bedroom unit when Portland has a housing emergency. The Peloton Apartments is not a TOD but it has just as much access to transit (four bus routes within 0.5 miles plus bikeshare stations) and the same lesson applies. Press Blocks, a proposed mixed-use development only steps away from the Providence Park MAX station in Goose Hollow, has proposed to add 487 underground parking spaces. If we want housing near transit to be more affordable, don’t over-build parking (an underground parking stall costs $55,000). If neighbors want less traffic in their neighborhoods, don’t incentivize new residents to bring their cars with free parking.
Although parking minimums are waived for development that provides affordable units near transit under inclusionary zoning, the exemption does not apply when developers pay a fee in-lieu for affordable housing. Parking should not be a required for development near transit regardless if it is under inclusionary zoning program.
2. TOD doesn’t need the “T”
The Redmond, WA TOD is an interesting case because it is the only TOD in the study that does not have a rail station. The 322-unit multifamily mixed-use project sits adjacent to The Redmond Transit Center served by ten different bus routes. The project was made feasible after the City amended its downtown zoning ordinance to allow higher density, encourage greater mix of unit sizes, and reduce parking requirements. While most trips to the area are done by driving (65 percent), it’s transit mode share (13 percent) performance is as good as the Englewood TOD anchored next to a light rail station. This may be the result of limited parking supply; the TOD has a 74 percent peak parking occupancy rate—second highest in the study.
The Redmond example supports the argument that proximity to rail station is not essential for TOD. A 2013 study by Daniel Chatman at UC Berkeley argues that distance from rail is not as critical as parking availability, quality of bus service, mix of different uses, density, and walkability in influencing transit use and auto-ownership.
Most Portland’s urban centers and corridors are very walkable, moderately dense,and have a mix of diverse uses. TriMet’s frequent bus routes like the #4 and #6 have the same service frequency as the light rail serving the Englewood TOD—15-minute mid-day headway on weekdays. Portland can reap the benefits of TOD without expensive and lengthy rail projects. For example, the Division Transit Project has the potential to spur development of housing, community gathering space, and retail destinations accessible by walking and transit on outer SE Division, but only if public agencies show leadership and commitment to prioritize transit over automobiles by providing dedicated transit lanes and limiting parking supply.
With more progressive parking policies like eliminating parking requirements, demand-based pricing, and residential permits, Portland’s centers and corridors would be well positioned to become transit oriented districts (TODs) and meet the City’s climate action and mode-share goals. Fixing our broken parking policies would be cheaper, faster and more effective than investing hundreds of millions of dollars in new rail transit infrastructure.
3. Reduce demand by sharing, unbundling and pricing parking
All five TODs in the study implemented parking management strategies including shared parking, unbundling, and pricing to reduce parking demand. The observed lower peak parking occupancy rate proves that progressive parking policies combined with access to rapid transit can effectively reduce parking demand.
Having the most parking management tools at its disposal, the Rhode Island Row TOD allows the same parking spaces to be shared between residential and commercial uses, unbundles parking from apartments by leasing each parking stall for $150 a month, and charges commercial parking $2 per hour or $24 per day. The results are indisputable. Rhode Island Row’s peak parking occupancy is only 64 percent of total supply. Almost 60 percent of trips are done by non-driving modes and it generated only 35 percent of trips compared to ITE’s estimate.
In Portland, parking is mostly bundled with housing, regardless whether renters want or use it. Parking is also mostly free outside of downtown, and not allowed to be shared among different uses. While the City is currently experimenting shared-parking in Northwest Portland and planning for performance-based pricing, more aggressive demand management policies such as unbundling parking from housing and residential parking permits will make our streets less congested, get more people out of cars, and free up more space for housing.
Think Deliberately and Flexibly
Putting housing, jobs, retail and services near frequent bus stops and rail stations can facilitate higher use of transit, walking and biking. On the other hand, over-supplying parking sends the opposite signal to travelers, encouraging more driving and neutralizing the intended benefits of transit-oriented development. If Portland’s planners and elected officials are serious about increasing affordable housing and transportation choices, and meeting our climate goals, they need to think deliberately about transit investments and advocate for prioritizing transit access. Spending $32 million on a parking garage in the Rose Quarter or imposing arbitrary parking ratios on new non-inclusionary zoning development near transit suggests they are not.
Flexible land use regulations and parking rules allow transit-oriented development to realize its full potential. Policy tools like shared parking, unbundling, and performance-based pricing can effectively manage parking demand and give developers more flexibility to produce high-quality development. With that in mind, planners and elected officials must be bold and make these parking management tools available so Portlanders can have increasing transit and pedestrian access to housing, jobs, and service, not empty parking spaces.