Op-ed: Berkeley has a parking addiction

A host of regulations around off-street and on-street parking surround the development of new housing and the associated public discourse in Berkeley.

Per Section 23E.28.140 of the Berkeley Municipal Code, any new development which reduces the amount of off-street parking must be guaranteed to not substantially reduce available on-street parking in its vicinity and satisfy a host of other requirements. Developers themselves have put in the effort to directly address concerns about potential impact on traffic congestion.

The resolution is simple: recognize that any government support of on-street parking, whether in the form of a subsidy or a regulation — including regulations which implicitly support on-street parking by imposing effective minimums on the amount of off-street parking included in new developments — harm the poor by divorcing the supply of parking from natural market forces.

The poor do not have cars. (Indeed, I myself am poor, and I do not have a car.) Therefore, the rich benefit disproportionately from on-street parking, which is effectively free parking provided by the government on the taxpayer’s dime.

Free parking is not free — it only seems that way; in fact, it is more accurately framed as being provided at zero cost by the local government. Moreover, requiring arbitrary amounts of off-street parking in new developments drives up rents, because the developers typically do not receive a market value payment for the floor space they allocate to off-street parking; as such, all else held equal, fewer housing units can be constructed in the available land. Ergo, the rent of the new units will consequentially be higher, pricing out low-income residents from the Berkeley community.

In the absence of a real market for parking, it is plausible that taking steps toward more sensible parking policy will, in the short term, increase congestion. However, our present dependence on cars is both enabled and exacerbated by legislation — not to mention entrenched mindsets of certain members of the Berkeley community — effectively creating the very problem which it ostensibly sets out to solve. Continuing to design our city around cars, not people, will never be anything but a leaky, patchwork solution to traffic congestion — one which drives unwanted gentrification and works against the interests of anyone not making a six-figure income in tech. The only way to reach a sustainable solution in the long run is to fully reform legislation surrounding parking requirements.

At present, many see parking as a public service and therefore adopt an attitude of entitlement toward any proposed developments which might reduce their access to on-street parking. This is prima facie absurd. The market value of a parking spot may very well be in the tens of thousands of dollars, well above the cost of a new automobile. Accordingly, shall we begin to entreat the government to provide every resident with a brand-new car? Surely not. We should therefore not act any differently regarding the provision of on-street parking, which is not only a gift worth thousands of dollars but one which disproportionately benefits only those who own cars.

Let us therefore all try to change the way we think about parking — I assure you that Berkeley will be so much the better for it.

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Andrew J. Ho is a resident of Berkeley who supports mixed-use zoning, parking regulation reform and construction of new housing.