Portland’s Parking Policies are Still Better Than Ours

Portland, right?

Is there a better city to compare ourselves to than Portland? I haven’t been there (well, I drove through it on a freeway from Multnomah Falls hiking on the way to a beach cottage stayover on my honeymoon, but I don’t think seeing a skyline from a highway really counts). But they seem good at things, like biking, streetcars (maybe not?), putting birds on other things, and the like.

So when a 2 year old story about how Portland re-upped their parking requirements started getting re-circulated, I figured someone should dig deeper into the issue. Particularly since Minneapolis council member Lisa Bender is pushing for some parking regulation reform right here in the Midwest (or North? I’m so confused). Portland isn’t some wonderful utopia everyone should blindly imitate, but we’d be fools not to learn from experiences in other cities as Minneapolis (and St Paul, too!) become more and more desirable places to live yet struggle to maintain affordability and mobility.


I’ll summarize the memo from planning staff briefly. In the early 80s, Portland decided to loosen its regulatory requirements to hopefully allow denser development in core neighborhoods. They had the MAX Light Rail on the way (while we were studying our own regional networks only to forget about them for 20-30 years) along with a not-too-old bike plan, all making it possible for car-free or car-light development to sprout up.

So, they removed parking minimums outright for many of their zoning classifications – 38% of their 196,000 parcels required no on-site parking (wow!). Did it work?

Source: Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BPS)
Source: Portland Bureau of Planning & Sustainability (BPS)

Their studies don’t have data from before 2006, but it’s pretty clear that by the mid-aughts there really was a decent number of parking-free and parking-lite building going on. 45% of new construction in that 7-year span had no on-site parking, and many buildings that did provide parking supplied fewer than 1 space per dwelling unit. And this was spaced pretty evenly across buildings by size as well:

Source: Portland BPS
Source: Portland BPS

In fact, one could argue that not requiring parking had the biggest impact on smaller projects – roughly half of all structures without parking had 1-19 units (an average of 6 units per structure). This screams victory for small, local citizen-developers, challenging the idea that parking reform only lines the pockets of the soul-less, out-of-town developers (though further data would need to confirm, obviously).

But! As you might expect, people complained. Streets were clogged, businesses suffered, children wept, gnashing of teeth (and so on). An in-depth survey was commissioned to understand car ownership, travel, and parking behavior. It found folks living in parking-free apartments were just as likely to own a car, but they just parked them on the street (for free)!:

Source: Portland BPS

But car ownership wasn’t really tied to car-commuting:

Source: Portland BPS
Source: Portland BPS

…nor was non-commute trips..

Source: Portland BPS
Source: Portland BPS

…and of all people surveyed (including car owners, car commuters, and users of car-sharing services), a solid majority of people took 5 or fewer trips by car per week:

Don't ask me why they don't add up to 100. Source: Portland BPS
Don’t ask me why they don’t add up to 100. Source: Portland BPS

So basically, new residents living in car-free or car-light apartments were storing their cars on the street for free but rarely using them, encroaching on business districts and lower density residential areas in the process. This shouldn’t be shocking. When it snows here in Minneapolis, you really get a feel for how many cars sit against the curb for a few days between uses (among other wasted street spaces).

Based on neighbor concerns, and despite their own findings that required parking raises housing prices, they implemented an increase in residential parking minimums to alleviate the strain on residents’ ability to find parking. Seems like Minneapolis would not be wise to follow Portland’s 1980 lead, right?

Was the Reform Necessary?

I’m sure you can guess my answer. What most people consider parking armageddon is usually not so bad. Most people didn’t have to cruise for very long, with the survey unearthing a few key facts:

  • 39% of respondents were able to find a spot within 1 block of their residence. 70% were within 3 blocks
  • 71% reported walking 0-2 minutes to/from their cars
  • 61% of respondents found an on-street spot either “right away” or “less than 5 minutes” (with an additional 16% having off-street parking right away)

HighCostFreePrkgThis doesn’t seem so bad. The vast majority of people barely trolled the street for a spot, walked short distances, and (most importantly) paid nothing to do so.

Of course, there was another path to alleviate residential and business parking needs. Streets.mn has covered Shoupian methods before. Donald Shoup himself even tried to help Portland out himself with some interim tactics that may have helped the parking congestion. The city mostly dismissed his ideas, but they could have implemented some market-based reforms similar to what Seattle and San Francisco (and even some areas in Minneapolis) have done.

Portland Still Better

Some cities.. not so progressive. Source: graphingparking.com
Some cities.. not so progressive. Source: graphingparking.com

First, let’s give ourselves some credit. In 2009, Minneapolis overhauled its parking regulations, wiping them out entirely for most of the downtown district, lowering them slightly for the rest of the city, and even implementing a few maximums.

As far as national comparisons go, we’re pretty darn progressive (and on the surface, very comparable to Portland). Besides, we shouldn’t shy away from further market-oriented reform when the opportunity is right in front of us.

However, even our progression and Portland’s seeming roll-back on parking still leaves us with a much more stringent residential parking code in 2015

Zoning codes vary slightly by city, so it’s never a one-to-one comparison by unit type, use, and form. I did the best I could to lay out all of Minneapolis’ zoning areas that allow residential, then mapped them to similar Portland zones for comparison. Portland’s 38% of parcels formerly requiring no minimum residential parking received only a modest increase. As the units per structure increase, so do the required number of spaces. But it’s important to note that for buildings with 1-30 units, developers still don’t need to provide off-street parking.

Image Updated from original post. Green means less restrictive (better).

We both have exemptions based on site location and substitutions for car spaces. Portland leads the way there as well:


Both in flexibility (number of exemptions) and how many spaces can be reduced, Portland takes the cake. But Minneapolis does have an advantage (albeit slight) in commercial parking requirements:


The difference might not seem like much, but in the cases where Minneapolis requires zero spaces up to a floor of commercial gross floor area (GFA), that may be the difference-maker for infill in traditional neighborhoods where space for parking is at a premium.

One other note, both cities have overlay districts that further reduce required parking (ex. Pedestrian Oriented Overlay Districts in Minneapolis). They’re too complicated to discuss and compare here.

Final Thoughts

No policy will make every single person happy. I’m partial to simply removing parking minimums entirely and letting the market slowly follow. Lenders may be less willing to back a big project without parking at first, but as Portland showed they can change their tune in time.

City staff could just as easily take a slightly more pragmatic approach and follow the Portland model for now, with an plan to re-visit in 10 to 15 years. Proactive on-street price management is a must, especially in areas like Uptown, St Anthony, etc. This might mean that folks accustomed to parking their car on the street have to pay a non-zero amount to continue doing so, be willing to walk further to park for free, or simply ditch the car in favor of a mixture of walking, biking, transit, and car-sharing services.

Minneapolis is becoming more desirable, more walkable, with better transit by the day. Parking reform is one piece of the puzzle to help keep new construction costs in our most walkable neighborhoods down while supporting neighborhoods that prioritize pedestrians, cyclists, and transit. Let’s not use Portland’s decision 2 years ago to roll back in regulations keep us from pushing for more reform on our end.


One thought on “Portland’s Parking Policies are Still Better Than Ours

  1. Alex February 5, 2015 / 3:05 PM

    FYI to readers, I updated the main residential comparison image as I was tipped off that a few were wrong (OR2 & OR3) and I highlighted Portland in a few spots where Minneapolis is the clear winner.


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