MAPC:If You Build It, Traffic Will Come:Parking Study Reveals That About 25 Percent of Spaces Go Unused in Residential Apartment Buildings

By Seth Daniel

It took a little nighttime surveillance work and the poring over of a lot of data, but a new study from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) of five communities – including Everett and Chelsea – showed that nearly 25 percent of parking space in apartment buildings are not being used.

Researchers Sarah Lee and Kasia Hart gathered information at traditional large apartment buildings in Everett, Chelsea, Arlington, Melrose, Malden – going out on weekdays between midnight and 4 a.m. to survey the buildings to see if the parking requirements on a lot of the new construction projects was being used.

The simple answer: most new developments are wasting space in building very expensive garages and surface lots.

“We wanted to see if the parking being constructed was being used,” said Lee. “What we found was that a lot of it on average wasn’t being used…We still saw the range of 25 percent of constructed parking not being utilized. That was the overall takeaway we got for the data collected. Chelsea and Everett were right in there with the average range for the five cities studied.”

In Chelsea, City Planner John DePriest, who sits on the executive board of MAPC, said it was nice to have such a study take a fresh look at some of the parking regulations.

“They asked us if we wanted to participate and we definitely did because there’s such a reliance on the parking requirements in Chelsea’s zoning code,” he said. “The question is always are they accurate and effective. Are they overly broad? From the results of this study, it appears that answer is ‘yes.’ I always tell the Zoning Board that there’s a different between parking demand as opposed to parking requirements in the zoning. In some cases, it’s not enough and in some cases it’s too much.”

In Chelsea, generally the parking requirements are 1.5 spaces per unit. It goes up to two spaces per unit for three-bedrooms and up. Last year, City Manager Tom Ambrosino and DePriest petitioned the Council to reduce parking requirements in the Downtown Business District to 0.5 per unit for the very reason that the study was conducted – they didn’t believe the parking was completely necessary for the types of residents such units would attract.

“I support the findings of the study,” said Ambrosino.

The study, called the Metro Boston Perfect Fit Parking Initiative, began when MAPC looked into studies done by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C. Researchers at MAPC said the number one issue in their planning area is always parking and traffic. The CNT studies focused on new apartment buildings and the parking requirements put on them – finding that many of the required spaces constructed weren’t being used by the demographic living in such buildings, many of whom prefer alternate means of transportation like bicycles, public transit, and ride sharing.

Those findings sparked MAPC to conduct its study, which was conducted in February and did not include parking at single-family homes or triple-deckers. It honed in on the apartment developments. Gathering information entailed going around to the identified developments and charting the spaces that were used between midnight at 4 a.m. on weekdays, which Lee and Hart said they believed was the peak demand for residential parking.

In Everett, they found that the parking build out for such developments was 1.14 spaces per unit, but that only 0.80 spaces  per unit were being used during the study – a difference of more than 25 percent.

In Chelsea, the build out of parking spaces was 1.05 spaces per unit, and only 0.81 spaces per unit were being used during the study.

That finding brought about questions of fairness and land use.

They said the average cost to construct a surface lot space was $10,000 per space, while a garage cost $30,000 per space. With so much parking not being used, it signaled that there might be a lot of wasted construction dollars as well.

“These costs for developing parking are passed down to the renters,” said Hart. “You may be a renter and you don’t own a car, but you are paying an extra $100 or $200 or $300 a month for the development of parking spaces in your building that, on average, aren’t being totally used…We wanted people to think about that.”

The land use question also seeped into the findings, with both wondering about what could be built instead of the parking spaces.

“These multi-family developments have a lot of residents who are using transit and other options,” said Lee. “These developments have options for people like Uber, Zip Cars and access to public transit so people don’t often need to own cars and many don’t have families either…We wanted  to hone in on that population because it could have more of an impact on land usage. Should we be developing more of these large surface parking lots or expensive parking garages, or can we eliminate some of that and instead add a few trees, or bike storage, or community space or even more units?”

Both said it begged the question that, perhaps, it’s time to re-examine parking requirement for new residential construction – that maybe blanket requirements are not the best options.

“We are certainly not advocating getting rid of parking everywhere,” said Hart. “We’re just trying to explain to these communities that parking requirements in these communities maybe shouldn’t be locked in to every development.”

Added Lee, “Three parking spaces could be a three-bedroom unit and that means more units in total, which is what everyone is scrambling to build as the housing demand increases in our areas…These are things people want and they are limited by potentially outdated zoning requirements based on data that isn’t reflecting the current trends.”

One thing they suggest is to have Zoning Board and Planning Boards think about specific developments when they review them – such as what the likely parking demand might be and apply different requirements to different developments.

Thinking that every housing development is going to produce two cars and loads of kids may not be accurate, and could produce unnecessary construction costs.

“Not every development now is going to produce three kids and two minivans per unit,” said Lee. “We want people to start thinking about who is living in these places and what are their needs. We shouldn’t project our own usage and uses on them.”

DePriest said the study would certainly cause Chelsea’s planners to take another look at their requirements to see if they need adjustments.

“Down the road, we should look at our parking requirements in the City and see if they need to have some updates,” he said.

Lee and Hart said it was of note that all five communities have been proactive in already taking steps to address parking requirements and also to offer better alternative transit options.

“More and more people we believe could end up saying, ‘Why am I driving in all this congestion?’” said Hart. “We can’t predict the future, but maybe owning cars will be less desirable. That could especially be true of young and more urban people that are moving into these areas.”

Concluded Lee, “Cities and towns are realizing more and more that a variety of transportation options will draw people to your community. More and more of these municipalities are realizing transportation diversity is a big draw to their communities.”

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