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  • yorro

Failures of The Misobserver

Are a bunch of cars in the driveway of a single family home a manifestation of a strong preference for motor vehicles, or an indicator of something else?

Years ago, sitting in one of my first planning commission work sessions as a planner, I watched as the commissioners debated over how far to go with a new ordinance allowing accessory dwelling units. How big should they be allowed? What sort of design criteria should we impose? In what zones should they be permitted? How much parking should we require? I did my best to propose no parking requirement at all, but in that town such an idea was not even conceivable.

Ultimately the issue was decided by the commission chair (a sort of low-grade good-ole-boy) who decided that ADUs needed more parking---he had observed a house in his neighborhood with a few cars parked outside and he understand that to be proof that the current standards were already severely lacking and now was the time to act. Ultimately the ordinance went all the way through with something like 2 parking spaces per ADU. For context, the municipalities with the greatest volume of ADU production in the last few years are generally the ones that require 1 space or more frequently none at all.

Years later, I still hear this tired explanation, mostly from the public, but sadly also sometimes from planners. People see cars in a driveway or cars on the street and they think it means there is a need for more parking. Planners see more drivers in big trucks, and think there is a need for larger space dimension requirements. In all of these cases, the reaction is to dumbly accommodate rather than scrutinize and evaluate.

No one ever seems to look more closely at these situations to ask who owns these cars and why there are so many in one place. To be fair, I can't say for absolute certain that a house with a lot of cars out front isn't the residence of someone who loves motor vehicles--it very well could be and sometimes is. But I propose, in 9 out of 10 of these situations, a bunch of cars outside of any sort of residence probably can be best explained by one or more of the following:

  1. Populations that don't have enough income to afford their own units: students and the "working poor".

  2. Groups of people too poor to afford units large enough to meet their needs: large families

  3. A built environment where most services and amenities are inaccessible without a motor vehicle

  4. Restrictive zoning limits the form of all buildings in the area, so even though buildings are functioning as apartments, shared houses, or boarding houses, they have to pretend for the sake of the zoning and building codes that they are a single unit.

Great examples of this are popular/amenity rich cities in the West like Los Angeles or Honolulu, and college towns like Boulder, CO or Tempe AZ:


Los Angeles:

Tempe, AZ

Although they may be misguided, we can forgive the average passerby for looking at these situations and assuming there's a parking problem--if I saw a bunch of cows lining up to get to a trough I might also conclude there either wasn't enough trough space or not enough hay. But the planners who go along with this, or increase parking minimums because of it, deserve our ire.

To some extent this is a form of survivorship bias--we are observing the people who have enough resources to live a high-housing cost environment but not enough to live in nicer or more spacious housing. There is no way to tell what these streets might look like if:

  • the rest of the built environment wasn't full of free parking

  • gas was more expensive

  • transit was more convenient than driving

  • there was more single unit housing available closer to other destinations

  • zoning allowed higher density

There's not really much to conclude from this except that if you ever come across a low density neighborhood with a lot of cars around each property, don't blame insufficient parking requirements--blame it on a confluence of bad decisions around land use and transportation infrastructure. At the end of the day, off-street parking minimums never have been and never will be an effective solution at either reducing the number of cars nor reducing congestion on the street since they never actually address the place where the problem takes place. You can mandate all the off-street parking in the world, but it doesn't make free, convenient parking at the curb not free or convenient.

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