Parking regulations are a perfect example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
For some reason, decades ago, somebody got it into his head that it was the city’s responsibility to make sure every Tom, Dick, and Harry had a place to park. To make sure there was enough parking, ordinances were enacted that required anybody who did anything to provide off-street parking. The requirements were written with a precision that would make a Soviet planner quiver with delight.
Do you want to build an office building? You must provide one off-street parking space for every 333 square feet. Do you run a catering service? You must have one off-street parking space for every 200 square feet. You’re a lithographer? You need one space for every 300 square feet. You have a call to build a church? You need "one space for each four fixed seats in the sanctuary."
Even the Dallas Convention Center must meet city code. So, like the rest of downtown, it is surrounded by asphalt. San Francisco’s Moscone Center is about the same size as ours, capable of hosting 700,000 people. There’s one major difference: the Moscone Center has no parking. Conventioneers there don’t have to cross blocks of flat, ugly lots to get to the city’s hotels, restaurants, and bars.
For a moment, let’s try to imagine a city where these kinds of requirements didn’t exist. What would happen?
Businesses would still need parking. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any customers. Office buildings would still need parking. Otherwise they wouldn’t have any tenants. But without the requirement to provide a set number of parking spaces, a developer might dare to rehabilitate a building that otherwise wouldn’t make economic sense. A small business—say, a laundromat or a restaurant—might decide to open in a neighborhood that isn’t otherwise served. In places such as Pasadena, California, where parking requirements have been loosened, redevelopment has quickly followed.
Parking requirements, like our one-way streets downtown, were a response to the Automotive Age. In their zeal to be up-to-date, city fathers turned to traffic engineers, the then-new apostles of the automotive economy. Their mission was to adapt the city to the car. To cut down on traffic jams, they installed one-way, four- and six-lane avenues. They allowed only parallel parking on city streets. They required builders to provide off-street parking. It was all very modern and efficient. But it turned what once were streets full of people into asphalt gullies that pour cars in and out of the city’s core.
It’s no wonder that urban analyst Jane Jacobs in the 1960s named traffic engineers as the main culprits in the death of the American city.
It is time to reverse their work.
Downtown’s unique selling proposition is not that it can be another suburban shopping district. It can never compete with NorthPark or Willow Bend or the Galleria. Downtown will be unique if we transform it into a pedestrian haven, where people live and work and eat without ever having to rely on a car.
Dallas city fathers enacted the present code when they were afraid that downtown would be overrun by cars. That’s hardly the problem now. The city should restore two-way streets and allow for head-in parking to reduce the gully effect. It should eliminate off-street parking requirements to let developers and businesses make their own decisions. It should give the maximum leeway for people to use their own creativity and common sense.
The present city code has brought us nothing but rows of empty buildings and blocks of asphalt parking lots. I say we try something different. I say we let the market decide where people—or if people—are going to park.