free parking

Many of us who live in California, especially the suburbs, are conditioned to expect free parking in the places we live, work, shop and take recreation.  We expect laws to require it, builders to provide it and operators of commercial establishments to offer it, at least to their customers.  As a matter of fact, the availability of parking has been enshrined in our local zoning codes since the 1950s.  Effective January 1, 2023, however, all that has changed in California.

AB 2097, passed by the California legislature in 2022, bars public agencies from imposing or enforcing minimum automobile parking mandates on residential, commercial or other development projects within ½ mile of public transit.  This law applies to new, ground-up development as well as changes in the use of existing buildings.

The idea that free parking isn’t really free, and that there are environmental and financial costs incurred in building and maintaining it, was forcefully articulated and proven nearly 20 years ago by UCLA urban planning professor Donald C. Shoup in his comprehensive book on the subject, The High Cost of Free Parking.  In his book, Professor Shoup argued that off-street parking requirements should be eliminated.  If, as Professor Shoup contended, the cost of mandated free parking had been inefficiently “baked” into development costs, AB 2097 was intended to encourage housing construction in California by reallocating these hidden costs and allowing the market to put a price on “purchased” parking.

Some cities in California got a “head start” on this effort by initiating action against the proliferation of free parking in new construction.  In 2018, San Francisco adopted an ordinance eliminating minimum parking requirements citywide, for all users, so that parking is no longer required for new development in San Francisco. In December 2022, San Jose became the largest city in California to take such action.

It is expected that AB 2097 will make housing construction, particularly multifamily buildings, more attractive to developers, even with higher interest rates.  “We’re making it cheaper and easier to build new housing near daily destinations like jobs, grocery stores, and schools, “ said California Governor Newsom in a video message after signing AB 2097. “This means more housing at lower prices closer to walkable neighborhoods and public transit.”