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Wednesday December 8th 2021

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Is Boulder Providing Too Little Parking, or Too Much?


Two recent transportation studies indicate that motor vehicle parking requirements for residential development in Boulder are higher than optimal, but that the lower standards enacted for the Boulder Junction area are about right or even lower than recommended.

Writing in the December 2010 issue of ITE Journal, researchers Daniel H. Rowe, Chang-Hee Christine Bae, and Qing Shen report on a study of parking demand and supply at apartment buildings in two areas in King County, WA.  One area, First Hill/Capitol Hill near downtown Seattle, is urban and described as having “high population density and robust transit service.”  The observed average parking supply was 0.74 spaces per dwelling unit, and the average parking demand (measured on weekday nights, the time of peak parking usage) was 0.52 spaces per dwelling unit. The other area studied, the suburban, jobs-heavy area of Redmond, had average parking supply of 1.66 spaces per unit, with average demand of 1.08 spaces per unit.

In Boulder, most zone districts require a minimum of one space per dwelling unit for residential construction.  In most of the higher-density zones, the requirement increases with the number of bedrooms in the unit.  In the RH-1 and RH-2 zones, the minimum standard is one space per unit, but it increases with unit floor area.  The parking requirement for the RH-2 zone is currently under review.

It’s not clear how the two King County areas relate to Boulder, but it seems reasonable to assume that transportation usage patterns in the more urban parts of Boulder, such as near downtown and around CU, would fall somewhere between those in the areas studied.  That would indicate a parking demand per unit below 1, meaning current Boulder land use codes require excessive parking.  However, developers frequently request parking reductions below what the code requires.

It appears that no analysis has been done of the actual amount of parking provided, on average, for recent residential development projects in Boulder.  The largest residential project currently under construction, the Residences at 29th St., was permitted for 240 units and 303 parking spaces, for a ratio of 1.26 spaces per unit.  This was a reduction from the required 316 spaces, or 1.32 spaces per unit.

According to a document provided by the city’s Planning Department, “[s]everal recently approved multi-family projects have included approval for a parking reduction, based on specific Site Review criteria within the land use code.  The approval of parking reductions is very site specific and must meet the criteria for a parking reduction….”  The document summarizes those criteria as:

  • The parking needs of the use will be adequately served through on-street parking or off-street parking.
  • If a mix of uses is proposed, shared parking at varying times of use is appropriate.
  • The nature of occupancy of the proposed development reduces the need for off-street parking spaces.
  • Alternative modes of transportation including proximity to transit lines or multi use paths [are] available nearby.

The Planning Department document gives other examples of recent projects and their approved parking provisions.  The student-oriented apartment project at 985 16th St. received a 50% parking reduction, due to its proximity to campus and students’ heavy usage of transit, and the Boulder Housing Partners Senior Housing project at 4990 Moorhead received a 25% parking reduction, due to transit availability and the lower auto usage of seniors.  The 98-unit Violet Crossing project at the corner of Violet and Broadway in North Boulder will provide more parking than required, when on-street parking is included.  Specifically, 104 spaces are required (a ratio of 1.06), but 132 spaces will be provided (a ratio of 1.35).

Writing in the same issue of ITE Journal, researchers Richard Lee, Robert Rees, and Mackenzie Watten document a study of parking demand at transit-oriented development (TOD) in the San Diego area, and recommend a parking ratio for residential units at TODs of 1.25.  They cite in particular engineering guidelines that call for a ratio of 1.0 spaces per unit in urban locations, and a study of TOD parking demand in the San Francisco Bay Area and Portland, Oregon showing average peak demand to be 1.15 spaces per unit.  The authors added a 10% convenience factor to the 1.15 number to get the recommended 1.25.

Boulder’s only TOD, Boulder Junction (formerly known as the Transit Village), has no parking minimum but a parking maximum of 1.0 spaces per residential unit.  Junction Place Village, a 319-unit development recently approved for the area, will have the maximum allowed parking.  Speaking before the city’s Planning Board last year, developer Scott Pedersen said that lenders were hesitant to provide construction financing for projects with parking ratios below 1.0.  Pedersen did not return phone calls seeking comment for this article.

Getting parking ratios right for development projects is crucial, but not always easy.  Too little parking can jeopardize a project’s economic viability and cause parking overflow to neighboring areas.  But too much parking increases costs, can reduce green space, and acts as an incentive to the use of automobiles.  Donald Shoup has extensively explained the downsides of excessive parking in his classic book, The High Cost of Free Parking.  Boulder planners need to continue to monitor both general research and local experience regarding proper parking ratios, and update codes accordingly, so that projects provide the minimum necessary parking, but no more.

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2 Responses to “Is Boulder Providing Too Little Parking, or Too Much?”

  1. Seth Brigham says:

    “You cannot sustain population growth; you cannot sustain growth in the rates of consumption of resources.”

    I think you’ve answered the question in your other featured article. Quote above.

    They should not be paving the way for more parking, but, creating a system of building and transportation that is available within the city limits, a system of carrots and sticks, whereby people must take advantage of public transport.

    But, they are not building affordable housing, housing for the poor and middle class that is designed properly.

    Looking to the future, light rail? North to South, East to West,
    free parking on the borderlines of the city?
    High volume traffic areas should be “taxed” as we have the technology now to create such a system. Just an idea that has worked, for example, in London.

  2. Zane Selvans says:

    I think it’s odd that we’re still playing the game of trying to guess a priori what the right amount of parking will be for a given development. It’s context sensitive, and contexts change. Over the 30+ year lifetime of the Junction Place Village development land prices will change. The existing transportation infrastructure will change. The cost of gasoline will change. Social norms about the desirability of private car ownership may very well change. The “appropriate” amount of parking depends on all of those variables and more. Rather than mandating that a particular development provide any parking at all, we should decouple the provisioning of residences from the provisioning of parking spaces. If someone believes there’s a market for parking spaces, let them buy land, build a parking structure, and charge for parking. If people don’t want to pay as what it costs to provide a parking space to park their car, then they don’t really want to drive a car. Bundling the cost of parking and the cost of renting an apartment just muddles the question. Pooling parking resources outside of a given development gives more flexibility for future adjustment too, If parking has been oversupplied, then that can be taken into account by building more residences and businesses. If it’s been undersupplied, well, someone can always build another parking structure. Vertically integrating the provisioning of living space and parking space precludes that kind future adaptation, and is a bad strategy in the long run.

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