In rapidly developing Austin, local law requires parking spaces to accompany nearly all projects built atop city soil, with the exception of downtown. However, as the city takes up rewriting its land development code—the rules around what can be built and where—such parking requirements are the focus of significant debate.

At least two parking spaces are needed per single-family home, duplex unit and townhome; apartments need roughly one space per bedroom. Standalone churches and temples need a parking space per 180 inches of linear pew space. To build a 2,500-square-foot bar, it needs to accommodate at least 25 drivers—a more than 10,000-square-foot bar requires room to temporarily store a minimum of 400 cars.

For developers, these laws pose an expensive obstacle—from surface parking lots to subterranean garages, parking construction can cost between $10,000 to more than $40,000 per space, industry experts say. To transportation experts, on-site parking requirements incentivize driving and work against the city’s efforts to reduce car dependency. In Austin’s neighborhoods, some say the existing rules prevent their streets from becoming lined with cars. Most of the city’s neighborhoods significantly lack sidewalk infrastructure and residents say car-lined curbs unsafely force pedestrians into the middle of the street.

These tensions led City Manager Spencer Cronk to name parking laws among the most divisive land use issues, and asked the mayor and City Council for policy guidance before addressing it in the code rewrite. In May, mayor and council said on-site parking requirements should be “generally eliminated” within a quarter-mile of the city’s transit corridors and activity centers and parking caps should be explored.

“We can’t afford to fail so miserably with our parking policy as we have over the last half-century,” said Greg Anderson, director of community affairs with Austin Habitat for Humanity. He also sits on Austin’s planning commission. “We have no choice but to do better. For air quality, for transit, for sustainability, for our own health, for our fiscal health. What’s worse than walking past a surface level parking lot?”

An evolving philosophy

Shifting attitudes on parking stem from the city’s continued, rapid growth, said Annick Beaudet, assistant director of the Austin Transportation Department.

“We’ve come a long way in recognizing we’re the 11th largest city in the nation and we really need to be progressive and modern in how we deal with parking,” Beaudet said.

A central goal of Austin’s official mobility strategy, adopted earlier this year, is to significantly reduce the popular habit of driving alone—today, 74% of Austinites get to work this way, according to an official survey. By 2039, the aim is to split car dependency between other modes such as walking, cycling, using transit or carpooling.

To reduce car reliance, the city should take aim at the convenience of driving, said Chris Riley, a former Austin City Council member. He said parking has heavily impacted city life.

“Parking requirements are deadly to city life; instead of having a compact, walkable community, you take the urban environment and stretch it out with big surface parking lots which no one wants to walk across,” Riley said, contrasting the South Congress neighborhood—developed prior to parking minimums—with the post-parking era Burnet Road. “Compared to South Congress, you’ll see no one walking on Burnet...because the city made it illegal to build walkable environments.”

Requiring parking by law sends a clear, encouraging signal to drivers, said Josiah Stevenson, a member of the urbanist advocacy group Aura.

“It actually makes it easier to drive compared to a different form of transportation,” Stevenson said. “The cost we don’t consider is the environmental impact of driving. The conversation should be around caps or taxes on parking, not which minimum we should have.”

A fragile formula

According to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis, axing parking rules within a quarter-mile of transit corridors and activity centers would impact most of Central Austin, where sidewalk deficiency is a major issue.

Brentwood resident Barbara McArthur, a member of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, voiced distaste for cars and parking lots, but said the city is putting the cart before the horse.

“They want to remove parking from corridors so our neighborhood streets are totally lined with cars and there’s no guarantee of transit or even sidewalks,” McArthur said. “If you want to walk and you live here, you have to walk in the middle of the street.”

Mayor Steve Adler has said it is on the government to retrofit already-built areas of the city with sidewalks, but the problem is large and expensive to fix. Approximately 1,103 of the city’s 2,580 missing miles of sidewalk are in Central Austin, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of city data.

Although she strongly supports reducing parking requirements, Leah Bojo, a development lobbyist with the local firm Drenner Group, said in considering tools such as parking caps, the city needs to consider market forces. Projects are often funded by lending banks that calculate, beyond local requirements, the parking needed to ensure a project’s success.

“If we just ban parking tomorrow, we’re going to have a huge problem with projects getting funded,” Bojo said. “We need a lot of housing, and housing is still tied to parking. The last thing we want is to stifle our housing market.”

Beaudet said that sensitivity is top of mind. City staff expect an update on the land development code revision to come this fall.

Corrections: A previous version of this story misspelled Annick Beaudet's name. A map included on a previous version of this story had neighborhoods incorrectly shaded. That map has been taken down to avoid confusion.