AB 2097: Places for People, Not for Cars

It has been known for quite some time now that parking increases costs and perpetuates car-centric development. Parking, an amenity so overly subsidized, is seen as a natural right to many Americans. And because most people expect to easily find parking in most destinations, they opt to drive. This preference is then perpetuated by the large amounts of vacant land required to accommodate a parking lot – if a restaurant’s parking lot is 3x the size of the dining area, then all of a sudden it’s not very feasible to walk or bike to it. Take this design and scale it across a city, and you find yourself in a sea of parking lots (which is the very reality we live in today). All of a sudden, the only convenient way to get anywhere is with a car. 

AB 2097 blocks city and county governments from imposing minimum parking requirements on housing developments within half-mile of public transit. Maximizing land use density allows for more homes, businesses, and amenities to be co-located at a human-centric scale. This makes it easier for people to walk and bike and easier for cities to provide reliable public transportation. I want to be clear that this is not a silver bullet – for true mode shift to occur, cities across the state need to truly allow for other modes of transportation. That means providing safe, all ages and abilities, protected bike lanes, that means increasing transit frequency and service hours, that means allowing for greater mixed use development, that means slowing down cars and ensuring that all road users feel safe in getting to where they need to go. Those steps, in tandem with this law, would really incentivize Californians to get around using mass transit and active transportation. 

San Diego was one of the first cities in California to eliminate parking requirements for housing near transit, back in 2019. Research has shown that the city has subsequently seen an increase in affordable housing production (and higher housing production overall). In fact, one year after the reform was implemented, San Diego saw a fivefold increase in the total number of homes permitted through the density bonus program.

Of course there will always be people unhappy with change. A lot of pundits argue that this law will disincentivize developers from including any parking in their developments. Studies in Buffalo and Seattle, cities that struck down street parking in the 2010s, showed that a number of developments kept the same number of parking spots that they would’ve had before the reform. The key takeaway here is that AB 2097 gives developers and tenants options. Because developers aren’t required to build parking, their development expenses can be kept lower, incentivizing affordable housing. And tenants that do not own a car could move in and not have to pay more for an unused parking space. 

These reforms are especially necessary given our current climate crisis. We know now that the post-war suburban (and exurban) experiment was a failure – ignoring all other problems, there is just not enough space to provide every single person a single family home with a front lawn, two car garage, driveway, and backyard swimming pool. Our sprawling cities require more resources to build, more money to maintain, and more miles to be driven. Not only is this ecologically unsustainable, but also economically irresponsible. As cities grapple with the looming climate crisis and work to reduce carbon emissions, they need to deploy every possible strategy – from reducing vehicle miles traveled to preserving ecological biodiversity. AB 2097 is one of these strategies.