Viewpoint - September 14, 2011

Guest opinion: Reducing traffic through reduced parking

by John Kadvany

Problem: Too many cars. Solution: Fewer parking spaces.

Expecting thousands of hires over several years, Facebook plans to limit parking at their new Menlo Park headquarters to approximately one space for every two employees. On most days a near majority will arrive by public transit, shuttles, car pools, or bikes.

It's a little counter-intuitive, but by limiting parking, fewer car trips are generated because some trips are impossible.

A similar recommendation for reduced residential (not retail or commercial) parking in the "Station Area" was made by the Planning Commission in their review of the Downtown/El Camino Real Specific Plan. The City Council should now vote to reduce residential parking in all Specific Plan zones. That's the most significant action Menlo Park can take to decrease traffic and greenhouse gases due to the Specific Plan. Reduced residential parking also provides an incentive for the right kind of new housing for Menlo Park.

The draft plan allows several hundred new housing units, most on El Camino and around the station, but also downtown, with new residents closer to transit, and to downtown retail and business. Business and retail still need plenty of convenient parking for Menlo Park shoppers and others. At the same time choices should be different for future residents of Menlo Park's transit-oriented housing.

Many young families, couples, singles, and seniors are looking beyond the multi-car suburban model, and would trade parking for lower housing costs or extra space. Developers might prefer more space devoted to building units or public space. Why not use that tradeoff to reduce the total cars needed for Specific Plan residential development?

We're not there yet. The draft plan requires 1.85 spaces per residential unit, or 19 spaces for 10 units, while, in contrast, the Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission, noted in the plan, suggests 1 to 1.5 spaces per residential unit. With a transit-oriented approach, cars are capped through limited residential parking, and residents are allowed to "unbundle" parking choices from their housing.

Critics of reduced parking raise fears of over-parked side streets. But Menlo Park disallows most overnight street parking, and on east El Camino Real, street access is limited. So the fear is overstated, as long as retail and business parking are kept separate. Some say residents "demand" more parking. But many renters and buyers would happily enjoy one car along with Menlo Park's benefits. Menlo Park's Specific Plan area is the perfect candidate for reduced residential parking limits.

Details of one-car residential minimums still need to be worked out, including developer obligations and conditions for "unbundling" parking and housing, leasing spaces, and reduced-size garages — also discussed in the draft plan. Downtown is already implementing a parking strategy with sensible time limits, new pricing, and permit controls. El Camino Real and the Station Area need their own dedicated parking strategy as well.

If Facebook can expand with limited parking and fewer cars, its new host city can too. Reducing residential parking in all 10 Specific Plan zones is the best next step toward achieving that goal.

John Kadvany is a member of the Menlo Park Planning Commission.


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