Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism points to a debate at Cato Unbound where Donald Shoup and Randal O'Toole vie for the title of free market defender of parking policy. Shoup contends, of course, that legal parking minimums distort urban property markets, encourage congestion and promote sprawl.
O'Toole makes a number of arguments but Smith responds to O'Toole's contention (more accurately, his insinuation) that parking minimums do not actually interfere with the market because they are not binding. Stephen gives a detailed rebuttal to this passage in particular:
To find out what cities would be like without minimum-parking requirements, we must turn to Texas, where counties aren’t even allowed to zone, much less impose minimum-parking requirements. This means developers are free to build for the market, not for urban planners. While cities are allowed to zone, for the most part they maintain minimal restrictions so as not to lose potential tax-paying developments to areas outside their jurisdiction. The result, as anyone who as toured Dallas, Houston, or San Antonio knows, is large amounts of low-density development supported by plenty of off-street parking, all without minimum-parking requirements (at least outside of city limits).
I'm firmly on Shoup's side here and so want to offer my own rebuttal to this argument:
1. O'Toole says there's "plenty" of off-street parking in the unincorporated portions of Texas counties, which do not require parking. (But perhaps they do.) The specific issue, however, is whether cities generally require more parking than the market would provide. Saying there's "plenty" in the unincorporated areas isn't good enough; he has to show that property owners there actually build as much or more than the neighboring city minimums. He doesn't even make this claim -- which is the one relevant to his argument -- and anectodal impressions from a driving "tour" wouldn't be rigorous evidence anyway.
2. Stephen makes this point, which I'll restate: Even if rural property owners build more than city minimums, this does not imply that urban developers voluntarily build to the minimum. A parking space in the city takes up as much land as a parking space in the countryside. But urban land is more valuable and so that urban parking spot has a higher oppurtinty cost. As urban land rises in value, developers working at the margin will choose less parking and more building; given fixed parking minimums, rising urban property values will eventually make the minimums binding.
3. We don't have to rely on basic microeconomic reasoning. Three economists have conducted an empirical, econometric analysis of L.A.'s parking space. They found that parking minimums are usually binding for commercial uses in L.A.. Indeed, they are binding for 99% of gas stations and restaurants. One empirical study of one market is not conclusive evidence that parking minimums are binding everywhere, of course, but it is more persuasive than O'Toole's drive-by appraisal.
4. Finally, but most obviously, parking minimums are contested by property owners all the time. To wit. What's O'Toole's message to these property owners? "Come on, you know you want it"?
I don't want to unfairly characterize O'Toole's position. The above passage was just one of a number of points he makes. He says he fully supports eliminating minimum parking requirements for developers. He does not contend that parking minimums are never binding. But observing that developers build "plenty" of parking in the countryside is no evidence that they would build to the minimums in the city.