The Pandemic Prompts Cities to Rethink the Parking Spot

Some urban designers have long wanted to reduce the area set aside for cars. Covid is giving them a chance.

One morning last March—Maura Thomson can’t recall specifically when in the early haze of the pandemic—Thomson and three others piled into a van and set out to bag the meters.

Thomson is the interim director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, which oversees the city’s 67-square-block core abutting the University of Michigan. It was clear to her and her fellow travelers—another authority employee plus two workers from its parking contractor—that things were about to change, at least for a few weeks. She understood that the street, the physical space of Ann Arbor, would need to change along with it. So just as the darkness started to lift, the group began to slip orange NO PARKING bags over about 100 meters, tacking TAKEOUT/DELIVERY PARKING signs above them. The reconfiguring of Ann Arbor had begun.

Nearly one year later, the bags are still there, and so is the impromptu parking program. It allows local restaurants that now rely on takeout for survival to set aside curbside parking for 15-minute pickups and drop-offs. Businesses can also reserve other spots for outdoor dining. “We’re recognizing that these parking spaces are just more public space and that they can be used for things other than cars,” says Thomson.

As the pandemic swept the nation last year, other cities reached similar conclusions. San Francisco—home to 275,000 on-street parking spaces—has issued free permits allowing businesses to set up shop in at least 1,100 parking spots. Across the Bay, Oakland received international renown for a Slow Streets Program, which banned most cars from 74 miles of road, with the goal of giving residents more space to socially distance. Boston launched a $200,000 ramp program, helping businesses that are taking advantage of its new curbside dining programs to remain accessible.

In recent years, transportation advocates had pushed cities to reconsider the value of parking and of the curb, that strip of public space often reserved for private car storage. Startups offered to help officials map and, eventually, charge for use of the space. No one knows how many parking spaces there are in the US, but some estimates put the number around 2 billion—seven times the number of vehicles and six times the number of people.

Now Covid-19 has propelled local governments across the country to reevaluate their streets, leading to experiments with long-pondered but sometimes controversial city planning ideas. The pandemic eliminated many commutes, took cars off the roads, and felt, at times, like a transportation tabula rasa. Cities seized the moment, sometimes without lengthy public comment processes or the usual red tape. “The pandemic allowed communities to get a taste for how the curb could look a different way,” says Mae Hanzlik, a program manager at the urban planning nonprofit Smart Growth America who authored a report on cities’ Covid-era responses to the curb. 

Change your city’s parking policies, goes the logic, and you just might change the city. Doing away with spaces might disinvite car travel and build support for more emissions-friendly bicycles and transit. Areas with zoning codes that require all construction to include plenty of parking, by contrast, tend to sprawl—and to make access to a vehicle a near necessity. Parking can also just be a waste. A paper published in February by the Journal of Transport and Land Use argued that if Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, had loosened its parking requirements in 2000, it could have accommodated more office space, housing, and retail. The researchers estimated that the changes would have added 13,000 jobs in the area and more than $1 billion in payroll annually.

Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, have been thinking about what to do about parking for close to a decade, says Ross Appel, a city council member and land-use attorney. In January, the council voted to use its emergency powers to do away with parking-minimum policies on its historic King Street for 60 days. The policy is meant to help businesses lease vacant storefronts during an economic downtown.

“Minimum parking requirements are sometimes a very expensive, risky, and complicated barrier for new businesses to open,” Appel says. Plus, the policies tie land use to cars. “It’s like a baked-in subsidy that perpetuates a norm of the automobile,” he says. Two businesses have taken the city up on the offer, and the council has discussed making the change permanent.

Busting norms is not everyone’s cup of tea. Historically, messing with parking can make business owners nervous. In many cities, business proprietors have pushed back against parking changes, afraid that potential customers won’t stop to shop if they can’t park. But the pandemic has changed the way many make money—and shifted their opinions on how the curb is used.

“Businesses have transformed to pickup and drop-off, and to a kind of hybrid between online and brick-and-mortar,” says Vineet Gupta, director of planning at Boston’s Transportation Department. So the city has reserved spaces for pickup and drop-offs, for food deliveries, ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, and for goods deliveries from companies such as Amazon. “Businesses understand that how we look at our code also has to change,” he says.

Adam Baru’s two restaurants, Mani Osteria and Isalita Cantina, operate out of the same building in downtown Ann Arbor. Together, they have access to up to eight parking spots under the city’s new policy. The restaurants used the spots for outside dining—they can seat almost 100 people—and to reserve space for those picking up takeout. Parking is generally dear in the downtown, but for now Baru credits the programs, plus his team’s creativity and a well-timed PPP loan, with his restaurants’ survival. “It’s not like we made a lot of money. But at least we were able to keep people employed,” he says.

Now that the initial pandemic panic has passed, cities are left with a pressing question: If streets aren’t private vehicle storage, what are they for, exactly? Who are they for? In Oakland, the city’s quick response to Covid allowed businesses to use parking spots as parklets and freed up street space for recreation instead of cars. But the programs faced pushback in the city’s Deep East neighborhood, home to a majority Black population. Some felt as if they hadn’t been consulted before the city went ahead and changed their transportation systems—and that the changes were part of a decades-old effort to push Black residents out of the city.

The response made sense to Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy in the Oakland mayor’s office. “It’s not unreasonable that Black people who have been pushed to the farthest ends of the city feel like every little thing is going to be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he says. “It’s a historic trauma response to systemic racism.” Now, officials are reassessing.

Officials asked community members in East Oakland what they wanted and needed from a transportation revamp; community members emphasized more traffic safety. The city will now put $17 million in just-won grant money toward street design tweaks to slow local traffic. Oakland officials have learned a lot about how to implement big changes quickly, says Logan. But the ideas have been the same from the beginning of the pandemic. “There’s this idea that public parking is the paradigm for use of public space,” he says. “And that’s crap.”

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