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Will reducing parking spaces make urban life better? More cities are trying it

An overhead view of cars parked in a parking lot.
(David McNew / Getty Images)
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Dec. 9. I’m Ryan Fonseca and sometimes I feel like my car owns me.

We spend considerable time and money on our motor vehicles. The latest research from AAA puts the average cost of owning and maintaining a new car at $10,728 per year.

We also devote a lot of space to our vehicles — especially when we’re not driving them. In car-laden Los Angeles County for example, there are more than 18.6 million parking spaces compared to 3.5 million housing units. That’s according to researchers from UCLA, who also calculated we have 3.3 parking spaces for every car in the county.

For decades in urban planning, housing and commercial developments have been tethered to parking; building codes require developers to provide a certain number of off-street parking spaces. That can drive up construction costs and, ultimately, rents.

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Now, California and some of its cities are shifting gears.

In September, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill banning local governments from enacting parking minimums on new housing and commercial developments within half a mile of major public transit stops.

San Jose took that a step further this week, with leaders there voting to abolish parking minimums for new developments citywide. San Jose joins a growing number of municipalities in California (and across the U.S.) that have made similar moves in recent years.

The Los Angeles City Council also approved a motion this week directing planning officials to begin studying strategies to eliminate or reduce parking minimums in “high quality transit areas” or “transit-rich areas.”

That’s part of the local effort to adopt a “15-minute city” approach, which aims to rebuild neighborhoods to make housing more affordable and better connected to jobs, retail and everywhere else we need to go — all without using our cars. To do that, planners are working to reclaim some space we’ve historically allotted to automobiles.

Donald Shoup has been talking about this for a long time. He’s a professor of urban planning at UCLA and, you might say, a parking prophet. Shoup has spent decades studying the impacts our parking policies have had on communities and advocating for a “Reformation” within the “established religion” of urban planning.

Shoup says we’ve paved ourselves into a corner by creating a world where “nothing can be built, unless it’s car-dependent.” Over time that’s led to the urban sprawl and soul-crushing commutes we know and loathe today.

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“We have separate zones that you have to go from one place to another to handle all the obligations of life — and you get free parking almost everywhere,” he said.

He published what he refers to as his 800-page “manifesto” in 2005, titled “The High Cost of Free Parking.” In it, he laid out the argument that many state and city officials are echoing today: that creating so much space to park our cars has contributed to expensive housing, traffic congestion, air pollution and climate change — among other issues.

I asked him how it felt to see California and its cities begin to adopt policies he’d long been calling for.

“It’s what the hippies used to call a natural high,” he said with a laugh.

“I thought [the book] would change things very quickly,” he told me. “Like many things in life, it takes much longer than you thought it would for something to happen, but then it happens much faster than you thought it could.”

So how will drivers react as more cities move to reduce space for parking? I asked Shoup if he anticipated some growing pains, but he contends drivers have been allotted too much space for too long.

“Most people seem to think that the parking spaces come out of thin air,” he said. “But just because the driver doesn’t pay for it doesn’t mean the cost goes away. That cost is paid by everybody, including people who don’t own the car.”

By making parking more limited and therefore more valuable to drivers, Shoup believes cities could charge “a fair market price” for parking. He cited the city of Pasadena as an example, where revenue generated from parking meters funded infrastructure improvements that made Old Pasadena more walkable, drawing more people — and sales tax revenue — to the previously blighted district.

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If new housing can be built close to transit and without mandated, multiple parking spaces per unit, Shoup said it would attract “people who are willing to go without a car ... if it will save them a lot of money on housing.”

“We don’t allow that to be built now,” he said.

But low-income Californians would be the key winners, Shoup predicts, since car ownership can be a major burden. He explained:

It’s always nice to have a car, but they’re expensive, especially for low-income people who then have to support the car. Ruinous interest rates, borrowing to buy the car and pay for the fuel and the repairs. ... If it’s easier to live without a car, they will be the biggest beneficiaries.

I’m sure a lot of you have a lot of thoughts about parking, so I want to hear from you. Will reducing space for parked cars and reclaiming more space for people make our cities better? Take our survey here to share your thoughts. We could include your responses in a future edition of the newsletter.

And now, here are more essential stories across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

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L.A. STORIES

Looking to spread some cheer this holiday season? One way to do that: Donate to a local toy drive. There are a number of organizations in SoCal holding events or facilitating toy drives. Here’s a list of where and how to get involved. Los Angeles Times

Check out "The Times" podcast for essential news and more

These days, waking up to current events can be, well, daunting. If you’re seeking a more balanced news diet, “The Times” podcast is for you. Gustavo Arellano, along with a diverse set of reporters from the award-winning L.A. Times newsroom, delivers the most interesting stories from the Los Angeles Times every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Earlier this week, state officials announced plans to close Chuckwalla Valley State Prison in Riverside County by 2025. Now budget plans released by Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), indicate more prisons are being considered for closure. California’s inmate population is shrinking, even as corrections spending has grown. Ting told reporters shuttering prisons was the “only way that we can really reduce our corrections budget.” The Sacramento Bee

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

L.A. County could be weeks away from reinstating a mask mandate — if COVID-19 trends keep going the way they’re going. Cases have been surging for weeks, and if COVID patients reach and maintain a 10% share of county hospital beds for two weeks, health officials say mandatory masking would return as soon as Jan. 5. So far L.A. is the only California county that’s publicly committed to mandatory masking. Los Angeles Times

California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle introduced legislation this week that could require public schools to keep Narcan at the ready. The nasal spray is used to reverse the effects of opioids like fentanyl, which has been linked to several recent campus overdose incidents in the state. The California Department of Education said fentanyl deaths accounted for more than 80% of all drug-related deaths among young people statewide last year. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

The inside of an arena with construction vehicles in the center.
The new 11,000-seat Acrisure Arena is set to open on Dec. 14 in Palm Desert.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Coachella Valley hosts two massive music festivals every April: the behemoth Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and the country-minded Stagecoach. Now two moguls of live entertainment want to keep the music going (and ticket sales flowing) in the desert during the rest of the year. The massive Acrisure Arena is set to open in Palm Desert next week, though it has raised some questions about gentrification in a largely rural area. Los Angeles Times

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Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at latimes.com/games.

CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: mostly sunny, 61. San Diego: sunny, 61. San Francisco: mostly sunny then chance of rain, 56. San Jose: Fresno: patchy fog then partly sunny, 56. Sacramento: slight chance of showers, 54.

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Theo Moreno:

Before the mall was built at Santa Anita in the early ’70s, the parking lot for the race track was a vast open plain of space where many a young resident of the San Gabriel Valley learned to drive. I was no exception. With my father “advising,” I got behind the wheel of a 1970 VW Bug. Over the course of three Sundays, I learned all the basics of steering, stopping, popping the clutch, stalling the engine and using turn signals — and got my license a day after the last session. My thanks to the big parking lot — it’s anonymity saved me from any and all embarrassment.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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