Onsite parking for Zipcar in New York City. (NYC DOT)

It’s a coveted amenity that’s all but a given for renters in some communities, but what is the true cost of bundled parking?

Recent studies show that providing parking encourages car ownership and driving, while decreasing reliance on public transportation, leading to increased congestion and emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

But that’s only part of the story.

Despite calls to create more walkable and environmentally sustainable communities, many municipalities across the U.S. have zoning rules in place that require developers to create a certain amount of parking as part of any new residential, commercial, or mixed-use construction.

In places like New York City, which have limited on-street space that often means subgrade parking at a cost of an estimated $150,000 per spot, which Open Plans Chief Strategy Officer Sara Lind said translates into higher rents and fewer market-rate and affordable units.

“Parking mandates raise construction costs and rents and lay a disproportionate cost burden on low-income households,” said Lind.

The nonprofit organization, which seeks to create livable, people-centered streets, is advocating for city officials to fully lift all parking requirement mandates.

In its March 2023 white paper entitled “Parking Minimums are Parking Mandates: Lifting Parking Minimums in New York City,” the group argues the requirements are only contributing to the city’s worsening housing crisis, with one unit of housing lost for every 1.2 spaces that are constructed.

For affordable developments, where costs are already a barrier, parking requirements can make the project even less feasible or place additional costs on nonprofit developers or the city itself, Open Plans explains in its white paper.

When buildings do go up, the additional costs are borne by all tenants, whether or not they own a vehicle.

In fact, a Victoria Transport Policy Institute study published in March 2023 finds the addition of one parking space per unit typically increases the cost of moderately-priced housing by approximately 12 percent and two spots raise the price of lower-cost housing by 25 percent, an added burden for those who can least afford it.

While subgrade parking is costly, if a building has its own ground floor garage that means there’s less space for retail, decreasing foot traffic in the area and forcing residents to travel away from their immediate neighborhood to shop.

New York City already has a transit zone that waives mandates for affordable and senior housing developments within half a mile of a subway entrance.

While the parking requirement mandates remain in effect for most of the city, the number of spaces required varies based on the building’s use and the specific zoning. Developers can apply for a variance, but the process is lengthy and expensive.

In California, where the housing crisis is also getting worse, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill last year that prohibits public agencies from imposing minimum parking requirements on any residential, commercial, or other development located within half a mile of public transit.

The new law took effect in January.

In San Diego, which in 2019 lifted parking requirements near transit for all developments, 1,500 units of affordable housing were produced the following year—six times as many as in 2019.

Although expanding transit zones in places like New York City and California would likely improve the housing situation, advocates say that measure alone won’t be enough to spur the development needed to alleviate the housing crisis.

In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has proposed reforming parking requirements through a zoning text amendment, which Open Plans notes could take years.

If parking minimums were to be lifted across the city, it would put the ball back in the developer’s court, leaving the company to decide whether or not it wants to build parking.

In the meantime, more cities are seeking to incentivize residents to forego buying and leasing vehicles in favor of other less onerous options like carsharing services, which allow members short-term use of vehicles seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Cars can be reserved by the hour, day, or week and can often be picked up on the street at locations that are close to a member’s home.

The New York City Department of Transportation and the New York City Housing Authority began partnering with carshare companies in 2018 to increase access to vehicles for those living in geographically and economically diverse neighborhoods that are often underserved by rideshare companies.

Unveiled as pilot programs, the partnerships were designed to provide more equitable transportation to lower-income individuals and those living in NYCHA housing by offering discounted rates on carshare vehicles, decreasing the need for car ownership and promoting a cleaner, less congested environment for all residents.

The initial DOT partnership was forged with two companies—Zipcar and Enterprise CarShare—with the agency planning to designate up to 300 on-street spaces in 14 pilot zones in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Manhattan and as many as 300 spots in municipal facilities for use by both companies.

NYCHA worked with Zipcar, which provided 24 vehicles to residents at 11 properties. The program now includes 82 cars that are available at 24 housing authority sites.

And in early February the DOT unveiled plans to broaden its on-street carsharing program, with a pledge to begin installing signage for the first 80 of hundreds of new dedicated curbside parking spaces for carshare vehicles in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

The expanded program involves three companies, including Zipcar, Getaround, and TruqIt—with 24 of the 80 space additions reserved for Zipcar vehicles, enabling the company to offer service to nearly 1,000 households.

“Zipcar is dedicated to decreasing congestion and carbon emissions while providing convenient, equitable transportation options to New Yorkers, including with more hybrid and electric vehicles,” said Angelo Adams, head of Zipcar.

“According to our new North American Transportation Survey, nearly 90 percent of Zipcar members in New York City do not own cars,” said Adams. “Another 42 percent said they postponed buying or leasing a vehicle after joining.”

While the New York programs are still relatively new, they are not the first or only ones in the country designed to level the transportation playing field by providing access to groups for whom car ownership may be out of reach.

In California, there are a number of pilots, all of which utilize electric vehicles.

The delivery models vary, with some specifically designed to assist residents living at affordable or public housing sites and others serving all populations, with locations in low- and middle-income neighborhoods and discounted memberships and trip costs available for low-income individuals.

The most extensive program in the state is BlueLA powered by Blink Mobility, which currently includes 100 electric cars and 40 stations–each one with five charging docks.

Madeline Brozen, deputy director of the University of California, Los Angeles Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies said the increasing number of carsharing programs in low-income communities provides better access to education, jobs and healthcare for disadvantaged residents.

“Historically the transportation offered to low-income individuals provided slower options,” said Brozen. “It’s very encouraging to see programs trying to address this inequity. Low-income areas have decreased car ownership rates, which can limit job opportunities and the ability to seek the best healthcare.”

Electric vehicle carshare programs also exist in Boston, Minnesota, and Vermont—each one offers a variety of pricing tiers.

As more carsharing services focus on inclusivity and accessibility, there is some good news for developers.

“Many cities have adopted zoning codes that allow a reduction in required parking for developers that integrate carsharing and other forms of shared mobility,” said Susan A. Shaheen, Ph.D., co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.