As local and statewide parking regulations aim to reduce car dependency and encourage housing development in transit-oriented areas, Redwood City officials say they are ahead of the curve.
In September, a new bill was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, which according to local officials, complements efforts already underway in Redwood City. Assembly Bill 2097, which takes effect Jan. 1, will effectively end parking quotas throughout much of the state.
The bill’s authors, led by Assembly member Laura Friedman, took aim at California’s parking minimums, which they said have historically prioritized cars over housing.
“Many cities in California require new residential or commercial developments to provide onsite parking spaces,” Friedman wrote.
These changes are nothing new to Redwood City, where updated parking standards have been under consideration for some time, according to Parking and Transportation Demand Manager Christian Hammack.
“I don’t think there’ll be significant impacts to Redwood City,” Hammack said. “I think [AB 2097 is] in line with efforts that the city's already been working on over the last several years.”
The state’s mandatory parking minimum policy exacerbates the housing crisis by raising the cost of housing production and “encourages car dependence and discourages mass transit usage, increasing vehicle miles traveled,” she added.
By banning parking minimums within a half-mile of public transit, the bill hopes to stop overbuilding of car parking, encourage alternative forms of transportation and lower the cost of housing developments.
Redwood City’s changing parking standards
For the last few years, Redwood City has been working to cut down on and, ultimately, end parking minimums throughout the city. Hammack described the new state bill as “complementary” to ongoing city efforts to reduce parking in favor of more green space, housing and alternative modes of transportation.
This undertaking includes the conversion of several existing lots into urban green space. Earlier this month, Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, presented a $4.45 million check to the city council to convert a parking lot of Redwood City’s downtown public library into a park, which Mayor Giselle Hale said she hoped would be an example for other municipalities.
Taylor Pope, a member of the Redwood City Transportation Advisory Committee, spoke during a recent city council meeting, in favor of adding more secure bike parking and other transportation infrastructure.
“For the sake of maintaining downtown vibrancy, I think the city should explore financially supporting other ways of making downtown accessible, in addition to driving,” he said.
Earlier this year, the city codified a so-called Transportation Demand Management program through an amendment to the city’s Municipal Code. Per the ordinance, residential and commercial developments coming to Redwood City must include plans to reduce the need for on-site parking and reduce vehicle congestion.
To comply, developers are tasked with reducing vehicle miles traveled through a variety of methods, such as ride-sharing incentives, bicycle amenities and transportation and housing subsidies. Hammack said the city is also encouraging new developments to make their on-site parking open to the public.
“The worst thing that you can do is build a lot of parking and have it go unused. And so the idea is to minimize the amount of parking that needs to be built but maximize the use of it,” Hammack said.
By 2040, the city is aiming to have over 50% of all trips to be taken by a mode other than driving.
“So if we want to try to hit that goal, we need to find ways to encourage people to use those other transportation modes,” Hammack said.
Currently, the number of parking spaces required in a certain area varies depending on the type of development—residential, commercial or other. Some developers in Redwood City reduce their parking requirements through trade-offs with the city or paying fees.
With AB 2097, however, jurisdictions will no longer be able to impose the construction of a minimum number of spots.
“It’s really allowing developments to right-size their parking, rather than just building for…the maximum amount of parking that you may need at one point,” Hammack said.
Parking spots underutilized in Redwood City
Redwood City currently owns and operates 2,561 parking spaces during weekdays, with 4,800 spots available on evenings and weekends, according to a memo shared with the city council in 2018.
Data collected in 2017 found that downtown parking had an average daily occupancy of 70-80%, slightly lower than the city’s goal of 85%. That rate equated to a system-wide surplus of 125 parking spaces.
“We’ve seen that our parking requirements are outdated,” Hammack said, adding that they set quotas that are higher than what’s actually needed based on use.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted parking occupancy rates, according to a recent city staff report. From May 2019 to 2020, parking transactions declined by over 90%, and total revenues dropped roughly a third.
Parking analyses from 2021 have shown a continued trend of high occupancy during weekdays, with peaks in the evenings, when street parking is free, and in lots closest to the core downtown area. On a typical weekday, centrally located, on-street parking has an average occupancy of around 70%, down about 10% from 2017, while city garages and peripheral parking are slightly less popular, with closer to three-fifths of available spaces in use.
Despite increases in parking activity since early 2021, revenue over the last fiscal year barely exceeded $1.5 million—half compared to 2019—partly because patronage of local businesses has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
However, the city has operated public parking at a deficit since at least 2006. To address the issue, the council recently approved an ordinance to increase hourly parking rates and enforcement. Five members of the public spoke in favor of the increased rates, including Pope.
“If we cannot increase parking sufficiently to cover the cost of operation, perhaps that is evidence that we have an oversupply and should consider repurposing some of that to better usage,” he said.
Less parking, more housing
In addition to promoting non-vehicular travel within downtown Redwood City, Hammack said that bans on parking minimums should encourage more affordable housing development.
“For a lot of projects, parking is a constraint,” he said. “In the Bay Area, building parking is expensive. On average, to build a structured parking spot it’s about $40,000-80,000.”
This cost is exceptionally high for affordable housing developments, which operate on an even tighter margin. Removing the burden of building parking, according to Hammack, “will probably keep Redwood City competitive with other jurisdictions, where developers may be looking at potential sites.”
Supporters of AB 2097, which include the Sierra Club California, California YIMBY and the League of Women Voters of California, also subscribe to this logic.
San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research (SPUR), a nonprofit organization that co-sponsored the bill, wrote that reducing parking requirements would “reduce traffic, greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution, reduce the cost of housing to renters and homeowners and improve the prospects of small neighborhood businesses fighting to survive during the pandemic.”