To Become a Less Car-Centric City, San Diego Takes Aim at Parking Lot Quotas

In addition to cutting carbon pollution, Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s climate initiatives could give a boost to public transit and affordable housing options.

Credit: K.C. Alfred/San Diego Union-Tribune via Newscom

If you’re looking for an apartment in the city that calls itself “America’s finest,” waterfront views and proximity to downtown may be on your list of priorities. Or perhaps two bedrooms and a shared pool would be enough.

In any case, it’s unlikely you’d give much advance thought to the parking spot that would come with your new home. But it’s invariably part of the package, and certainly part of the total housing cost, says NRDC transportation expert Carter Rubin. “It could be hidden, but you’re definitely paying for it in some way,” he says.

And parking is costly in California’s second-biggest city. That’s an issue that San Diego officials are bringing to broader attention as the city works toward its sustainability goals, following in the footsteps of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. In early March, the San Diego City Council decided to eliminate an existing mandate that new condominium or apartment units each come with one to two parking spots. (More specifically, the rule will impact housing within half a mile of a trolley or bus route.) By doing so, the city hopes to encourage more residents to use low-carbon transit alternatives to get around town.

San Diego adopted an ambitious Climate Action Plan in 2015 to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2035, and in October it became one of 25 Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge winners. The $70 million program—a partnership among Bloomberg Philanthropies, NRDC, and other organizations—provides resources to help participating cities address two of the biggest sources of carbon emissions: transportation and buildings.

One way San Diego has pledged to do so is by halving the number of car trips in busy transportation areas. Case studies have shown that free parking increases single-driver car trips (and their tailpipe emissions) by about 60 percent. The amenity also contributes to urban sprawl and traffic jams.

To study whether occupants of new homes near transit could make do with fewer parking spots, the city planning department reviewed six downtown residential buildings earlier this year. The planners found tenants were using less than one parking space per housing unit in their garages, and that some people were paying for spaces they didn’t need. Since permanent parking spots in San Diego can raise the price of housing units by up to $90,000 (adding several hundred dollars a month to rent or mortgage bills), the potential savings for residents are huge.

A trolley passing City College Station and high-rise apartments in central San Diego
Credit: Howard Lipin/San Diego Union-Tribune via Newscom

By eliminating the existing parking mandates near transit and unbundling the associated housing costs, Mayor Kevin Faulconer is optimistic about the future of affordable housing in his city. “We need to get government out of the way so constructing homes becomes easier, less expensive, and faster,” he said after the March initiative passed. “What we’re doing is separating the cost of parking from the cost to rent or buy a unit so San Diegans can choose for themselves to pay for a parking spot or go without parking if that works better for their lifestyle or financial situation.” Faulconer also noted that other West Coast cities that have undergone similar parking reforms have seen decreases in car ownership, higher rates of public transit ridership, and the creation of more affordable housing.

Downtown residents stand to benefit in other ways, too. San Diego will require multifamily housing developers that opt for fewer parking spaces to include other amenities, such as free transit passes, bike storage, or on-site daycare facilities.

The city’s new parking plan sounds promising—but not everybody is on board. Faulconer’s initiative passed 8 to 1, with the single “no” cast by council member Jennifer Campbell. Campbell doesn’t think the city is ready for such a reform yet. She says the existing transit system can’t currently support all of the city’s commuters—some 1.4 million workers who move throughout San Diego County daily.

“Once it’s convenient and saves money and time for people to use mass transit, they will,” said Campbell on the day of the vote. She emphasized a lack of rapid transit bus lines and light rail lines connecting enough of San Diego’s homes, businesses, and jobs.

On that front, the city is working to expand its mass transit system and to become more bike friendly. Last winter, construction began on a nine-mile network of protected bike lanes through a Downtown Mobility Plan very similar to Portland’s efforts to provide cleaner transit options to its commuters.

For Maya Rosas, director of policy at Circulate San Diego, a group that advocates for better transportation and sustainable land use, now the time to plan for a future in which San Diegans don’t need to drive everywhere. Circulate San Diego penned a detailed report back in 2016 explaining the high pollution and housing toll that parking takes on the city. “There is a lot of change that needs to happen to help our city meet our climate goals,” says Rosas. And ditching the unnecessary parking requirements is a good place to start.

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