Eric Cochrane: Abolish harmful parking minimums

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Published: 10/1/2023 7:01:03 PM
Modified: 10/1/2023 7:00:06 PM

Vehicle ownership has been touted in the U.S. as a convenience to strive for, as having a car supposedly offers unmitigated freedom.

This has resulted in parking minimum policies, mandating how much parking should be built, at the expense of building new homes during a housing crisis. Parking minimums are detrimental, as the ongoing desire for car ownership has accelerated many social problems, from housing affordability to climate disasters to the disturbingly high number of people killed every year by cars. This is felt in large cities, and has affected the quality of life in the Valley for the worse.

Since moving to Somerville from Amherst in December, something I have enjoyed most is how walkable and bikable the area is. Somerville and Cambridge have greatly prioritized pedestrian and bicycle access over the supposed convenience of cars. It helps that Cambridge recently became the first city in Massachusetts to eliminate all parking minimums (of which Somerville itself has abolished in most circumstances), creating more space for people over cars.

This also makes lots available for development of denser housing, and would help in alleviating the housing crisis if adopted by more towns and cities. This is something Amherst and Northampton, as well as other towns, should implement to become more livable and affordable places.

Amherst has made progress, having already eliminated parking minimums for housing in the dense downtown. A recent revision to the zoning bylaw gave the permit-granting authorities more flexibility to modify parking requirements.

More could be done to eliminate parking minimums in village centers and areas served by public transit. In Northampton, parking minimums apply citywide. While a developer can opt to pay a fee to the city in lieu of providing some or all of the required off-street parking spaces ($2,000 per parking spot) in the Central Business District, that’s still a penalty for housing developers looking to decrease parking. And those funds go to, you guessed it, adding and maintaining parking!

Northampton touts itself as a Paradise of America, and has a centralized parking garage, where the first hour is free. The slogan only goes so far when plenty of land in Northampton is used as surface lots for parking.

Garages are opportune for dense spaces, which would free up space elsewhere to prevent parking sprawl. If more parking can be provided in a garage, more surface lots can be redeveloped into new housing and more street parking can be repurposed for pedestrian and bicycle use, which a paradise would have prioritized long ago.

In addition to abolition of parking minimums, Amherst and Northampton should build accessible and reliable public transit for all to access any community they wish, along with safe streets for pedestrians. Local public transit, done well, is way more free than a mere one hour of parking alone.

Many progressive communities are working to remove parking minimums from their zoning requirements to be pedestrian friendly. In Ithaca, New York, for example, the Common Council voted unanimously to remove parking minimums in certain business zones throughout their downtown. This will help Ithaca reduce carbon emissions and may even drive down rent prices for business.

Minneapolis also abolished parking minimums, which has allowed for more construction of denser affordable housing. As inflation remains an ongoing concern, construction of new housing units helped make the Twin Cities the first metro region in the U.S. to drop below 2% annual rate of inflation.

Abolishing parking minimums is a win-win for any town that implements such a policy. It will help communities meet climate goals, reduce congestion, attract dense mixed-use development, reduce traffic fatalities, and help reclaim communities for people instead of cars. While we’re at this, we should reinstate the local trolley and train system that was robust in the 1900s, fully electrified, to make cars mostly irrelevant.

Eric Cochrane lives in Somerville.


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