Oakland Steers Away From Cars

Two recent decisions could help encourage smart growth, decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce the cost of housing.


Illustration by Minwoo Park

In 2012, Oakland adopted an ambitious plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 36 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050. The proposals were part of the city’s Energy and Climate Action Plan, a multipronged strategy for reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions that was intended to help demonstrate Oakland’s leadership in sustainability and cement its reputation as one of the greenest cities in the nation. But there was a problem: Some of the city’s own policies run counter to its green goals. So it’s not surprising, then, that the city is failing to meet its 2020 projections, according to a report released in March.

In September, however, Oakland took two important steps toward aligning its policies with its agenda: by reducing, and in some cases eliminating, off-street parking requirements for new developments, and by no longer allowing new development projects to be stymied by concerns over traffic under the California Environmental Quality Act—a change initiated by Senate Bill 743.

Both of these decisions, which were proposed by Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration, are long overdue and are helping steer the city away from its outdated, car-centric planning policies and toward more sustainable development. The new rules also have the potential to impact not only the environment but also housing affordability, economic development, and community health.

“We’re really happy with what Oakland has done in updating its parking codes,” said Jennifer West, senior program manager at GreenTRIP, which encourages more environmentally friendly development and is a project of the Oakland nonprofit TransForm. “We work at TransForm on both climate and equity issues, and parking hits both in that parking drives up the cost of housing significantly. We think housing people, not cars, is the best way to go forward.”

Oakland’s change to its off-street parking requirement marks the first update to that portion of the city’s planning code since 1965, when city planning was geared toward a more suburban environment. Back then, the city mandated developers to provide at least one off-street parking space per dwelling unit, a generic one-size-fits-all approach that was adopted based on peak demand in suburban environments, according to a city report.

“It’s widely recognized—it’s not controversial anymore—that the U.S. and the world really overdesigned for cars for decades, and there were tremendous costs of that,” said Matt Nichols, transportation policy director under Schaaf.

Parking adds significant costs to the price of a building. One parking space can cost between $20,000 and $80,000 to construct and adds an average of $225 per month, or $2,700 per year, to the cost of rent. Research shows that developers have been forced to build too much parking. An analysis by TransForm showed that in 14 multi-unit buildings in Oakland, an average of 27 percent of parking spaces went unused, representing $22,108,600 in wasted construction costs and 133,200 square feet of space. (TransForm’s GreenTRIP Connect tool allows developers to figure out the appropriate amount of off-street parking for a development based on a variety of factors.)

The problem with all this wasted parking space is that even people who don’t own cars are forced to pay for them. When parking is included in the price of rent, it hides the true cost of parking and in some ways incentivizes car ownership.

Oakland’s new rules for off-street parking still maintain some minimum requirements but lessens them if developers offer residents alternative modes of transportation such as car sharing or transit passes, or if the development is near a major transit stop. And the city is making it easier on developers to be eligible for these reductions by no longer requiring them to get conditional use permits, which can be costly. For multifamily housing, the maximum amount of parking reduction is 50 percent, or one space per two dwelling units.

Most importantly, the city has completely eliminated parking requirements for both commercial and residential projects in downtown and transit-oriented development districts, which are areas adjacent to BART stations. This reduces the cost of construction for smart-growth development, which Oakland desperately needs more of in order to address its housing shortage, while also encouraging walking, biking, and using public transit.

But will developers actually build less parking? And if they do, what’s the guarantee that they’ll pass on their savings to tenants? While it’s impossible to know, Simon Chen, chief financial officer for Madison Park Financial, a developer of market-rate housing in Oakland, says developers don’t want to build more parking than is necessary because of how much it costs. He said Madison Park will evaluate the amount of parking its projects need on a case-by-case basis.

And judging by Madison Park’s last several projects in Oakland, only about 80 percent of parking spaces are being used. “If we’re allowed to, and we continue to see projects at 80 percent utilization, I could see us going down to 80 percent,” Chen said. “There are savings there and lower hurdles for us to cover and therefore rents would be lower. When it costs us less to rent a property, it’s basic math.” Meanwhile, Chen said he’s seen the demand for bike parking triple in the last 10 years.

Further nudging people out of their cars, Oakland now requires all new market-rate apartments to “unbundle” the cost of parking from the price of rent. This encourages people to give up their cars because it makes them more conscious of the financial burden associated with owning them. In fact, studies show that unbundling reduces the amount of required parking in a building.

Directly related to the changes to off-street parking requirements are the modifications to the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, and specifically the provision that has allowed traffic congestion to be considered a significant impact on the environment. This old rule meant that if a proposed transportation or development project was found to add significant traffic delay, called Level of Service, or LOS, the developer would be forced to pay for traffic mitigation measures or abandon the project altogether. The irony is that these traffic mitigation measures—such as adding traffic signals or widening city streets—typically lead to more traffic congestion.

“What the LOS analysis does is it emphasizes the congestion inconvenience to the motorist,” explained Darin Ranelletti, Oakland’s interim director of planning and building and former deputy director of planning. “So you have a situation where you increase roadway, add more cars, make it less attractive to pedestrians and bicyclists, and as the city continues to grow, end up with more congestion.” In fact, the LOS provision actually encourages sprawl because traffic impacts tend to be less significant for developments in suburban areas.

In Oakland, the LOS provision was particularly burdensome because many streets are already congested and there’s no way to expand them. This meant that certain parts of the city couldn’t be developed. “A lot of places that are in priority development areas in the region, it’s impossible to widen the street,” said Nichols. “Take San Pablo [Avenue], there’s nothing you can do on it so projects can’t happen or we end up adding signal after signal after signal, which can solve some problems but it actually leads to a different problem, which is too many traffic signals, and it’s just not where the money should be spent. You’re asking a developer to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a new signal that then just stops the traffic and solves the problem only on that little block, not in the area.”

There’s also evidence that the LOS provision has been abused to block otherwise environmentally friendly projects. A 2015 study by the law firm Holland & Knight showed that CEQA lawsuits in California overwhelmingly target infill development, and that the majority of them are filed by individuals or local “associations” with no background in environmental advocacy. “CEQA litigation abuse is primarily the domain of Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) opponents and special interests such as competitors and labor unions seeking non-environmental outcomes,” the report states. The report’s authors also note that traffic congestion, along with traffic-related air quality and public safety impacts, are the most frequently challenged CEQA infill project topic.

Instead of using the LOS criteria, Oakland will use vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which measures the amount and distance that a project might cause people to drive and is a better metric for greenhouse gas emissions. This revision is in accordance with proposed changes by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research—changes that were triggered by SB 743, which sought to avoid a CEQA lawsuit regarding the building of the Sacramento Kings basketball arena. Whereas mitigating LOS required measures that inadvertently increased car traffic, mitigating VMT involves things such as improving access to public transit, providing bike parking, increasing access to grocery stores and schools, and adding affordable housing.

Oakland’s new off-street parking rules also should help. If there’s less parking, and thus fewer cars, that’ll mean fewer traffic-related impacts and thus fewer obstacles to approving smart-growth projects. And that’s just the beginning. On Oct. 4, the city unveiled its strategic plan for transportation, which includes, among other things, “performance-based parking pricing,” which changes parking rates based on demand and shrinks the amount of time required by drivers to find a parking spot in high-demand areas. The plan also calls for adding parking benefit districts, wherein revenue from parking goes back to the community.

These efforts, said Nichols, don’t mean Oakland is waging a war on cars. Rather, he said, “It’s moving from an overly car-centric planning framework … to an appropriate one.”

Published online on Oct. 26, 2016 at 9 a.m.

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