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Mexico City is kicking its parking addiction. Can U.S. cities do the same?

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By dropping rules that mandate more parking spaces, the largest city in North America will become more affordable and transit-friendly

Parking takes up 30 percent of the land area in U.S. cities.

This week, Mexico City took a big step towards making housing more affordable and transit more efficient. Did it pass a new budget that funded new apartments, or propose a new expansion of the public transportation system? Nope, it simply eliminated parking minimums, the city regulations that impel builders to add a required amount of parking spots for every new unit of housing they create.

“It’s a 180-degree change in the approach toward parking,” Andrés Sañudo, a local planning consultant, told Streetsblog.

The biggest city in North America decided to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new developments, and push policies that help convert existing spaces to different uses. The connection between affordability, transportation, and small patches of asphalt may not immediately seem apparent. But extensive studies by planners and researchers show quite the opposite. Cities—and renters—pay a big price for parking.

Mexico City just eliminated parking minimums, which may help North America’s largest urban area reshape itself into a more affordable, transit-friendly city.

Parking’s true price

Mandating parking not only wastes tons of valuable city real estate but it also bundles housing and parking together, making it impossible to pay for one without the other. This functions as a powerful force that not only shapes how cities look and function, but increases rent and housing costs.

One study of U.S. rental data found that forcing developers to add parking spots for new buildings contributes to 16 percent of the cost of an apartment, a cost passed down to renters. Writing in the journal Housing Policy Debate, researchers Gregory Pierce and C.J. Gabbe found that it’s not just a cost issue, it’s an equity issue. Urban dwellers who don’t own or use cars are in effect forced to subsidize parking spots for others, without any choice in the matter. The average cost of parking per renter was $142 a month, Pierce and Gabbe found, a price that is mostly paid by the urban poor.

Imagine how much easier it would be to make your rent payment if you could shave 16 percent off of your housing costs for an amenity that you don’t use. Nationwide, the researchers discovered, renters without cars end up subsidizing parking by an incredible $440 million a year. “While many households might have chosen to pay for on-site parking in a free market, this proportion is surely lower than what has been mandated,” write Gabbe and Pierce.

Wasting urban space

The cost of building more unused parking, and forcing people to pay for both housing and parking together, can also be calculated in wasted space. According to a Vox video on the high cost of free parking, due to the widespread adoption of these types of regulations, there are eight parking spaces for every car in the United States, and parking takes up 30 percent of the land area in our cities.

These rules can lead to truly absurd land-use scenarios. Consider the newly unveiled Apple campus in Cupertino, California, a futuristic spaceship of an office that still was forced to include 3.5 million square feet, or about 80 acres of parking. Unbelievably, that’s more space than the project dedicates to actual offices and labs.

Land used for parking is simply space that isn’t converted into much-needed affordable housing, thus limiting the supply and driving up rents overall. Cars need somewhere to go, certainly, but over time, we’ve sacrificed an overabundance of our urban landscape to asphalt. Many U.S. cities are starting to shift their thinking on parking, and even find ways to repurpose parking garages, often in response to coming shared and autonomous mobility solutions. But more work needs to be done to truly reclaim our cities from an excess of parking spaces.

“Siri, where’s my car?” The new Apple campus in Cupertino, California will have 80 acres of parking due to city parking requirements.

The Mexico City model

Contrast this with the bold new policies in Mexico City, which make it the most parking progressive city in Latin America. Instead of a parking minimum, the city now has a parking maximum, and fees collected from builders who build too many spaces will be used to improve transit and subsidize housing. Going forward, the only parking being mandated will be for bicycles. And, by cutting down on the addition of unneeded parking spots, these policies also save maintenance costs in the long run.

Unless serious reform is made now, current policies in the United States will mandate that our cities will be built with a certain amount of parking for years into the future. In effect, parking minimums will limit how we can design our cities, and in many ways, who we can design for, since cars are automatically given so much room. Mexico City’s recent move means planners, developers, and citizens now have the space to make their city better, not just make more room to park their cars.