SE Divison Street in Portland. Photo by Matt Kowal on Flickr.

Opponents of DC’s zoning update are touting news that Portland, Oregon is re-instituting parking minimums. They claim the Portland case proves eliminating minimums doesn’t work. But it actually shows how sometimes leaders bow to political pressure and resident fears, even for a bad (popular) solution instead of a better (less understood) one.

Portland removed parking minimums in many neighborhoods with high-frequency bus lines in the 1980s. Recently, residents in the Richmond neighborhood pushed to reinstate some parking minimums after plans came to light for a new 81-unit building without off-street parking.

Many neighbors were frightened that the new building could make parking on street more difficult. It’s an election year, and candidates wanted to cultivate votes from active residents in the area. They gave those residents what they wanted. Unfortunately for Portland, those residents skipped over a much better policy tool: on-street parking permits.

As Dick VanderHart explains in the Portland Mercury, the neighborhood has a vibrant nightlife which attracted new visitors to the area. Those visitors compete with residents for parking. Curbside parking is free at all times.

Residents can request residential permits to limit visitor parking and overnight parking. Last year, the city created a “mini” parking district program so individual neighborhoods can create new small parking districts, but so far, none have requested one.

Perhaps that’s because it’s not really hard to park there. In a Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) survey, most residents said that they usually park on the street 1-2 blocks from their homes and most spend little time looking for parking. 

It isn’t clear that a parking problem exists in Portland today. Plus, building more off-street parking will not do anything about visitors patronizing the new bars and cafes in the area. That’s especially true as long as parking is free on every street in the area. No matter how much garage parking new buildings have, many people will find it more convenient and cheaper to park on the street until the city limits on-street parking or charges for it.

This closely parallels issues in DC. In many neighborhoods, it’s becoming more difficult to park. We have parking minimums, but they clearly aren’t preventing this. The solution is not to cling tenaciously to parking minimums, but to set up a better system that actually manages on-street spaces.

The Portland zoning code didn’t fail. Instead, the residents didn’t or couldn’t use other parking management tools. We don’t know yet if switching the code back will improve matters for unhappy residents — the vote just happened last week — but it’s unlikely.

The new Portland policy require one space per 5 units for buildings with 30-40 units, one per 4 for buildings of 41-50 units, and one per 3 for buildings over 51 units. If the developer puts in bike parking and car sharing, they can relieve some of the requirement.

Perhaps because of the impending election, Portland’s council may have acted hastily. The city was also working on other policies to deal with parking through basic transportation demand management measures, but that proposal was not finished in time for the council vote.

Opponents have been complaining most strongly about the DC proposal to exempt residential buildings of up to 10 units from parking requirements citywide. Portland still exempts buildings up to 3 times that size.

Plus, while many tout Portland as a transit mecca for its pioneering streetcars and other policies, the percentage of trips by transit here is triple that of Portland, which has no subway at all. TriMet has cut service in recent years, while WMATA has not. DC neighborhoods whose residents consider their transit fairly meager still have a lot of transit by the standards of many parts of Portland.

Portland’s parking experience is not proof that parking minimums are necessary. Instead, it shows that politics can get in the way of good parking policy. Just because politicians in one city had a knee-jerk but nonsensical reaction to a certain neighborhood’s complaints does not mean DC should do the same.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she’s not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only.