The Parking Question



April 29, 2016

It’s happened over and over again.  We hear from a homeowner who is excited about the prospect of creating a second unit to house a loved one or to generate rental income.  They sound like a perfect candidate with a well-laid-out home.  We want to get excited too, but we are wary, having been through this many times before.  We ask “THE” question, “Do you have room on your property to create an extra parking space for the unit?”  The results are surprisingly similar.  The person says “Yes, no problem, you could park four cars in front of our house.”  Then we tell them the legal definition of a parking space.

This varies by jurisdiction, but is some combination of: the house must be brought up to the current parking standard, the parking spaces must be covered, the space can’t be in the front or side setbacks, no tandem parking is permitted, no parking is allowed on a slope that exceeds X degrees, and the space must be independently accessible for the renter.  And that’s where the discussion often ends.  Most lots in Marin just don’t have the room to create an additional parking space, which is typically what’s required to get a second unit approved.  After you eliminate the front and side setbacks you are left with a skinny strip in front of the garage and another disillusioned family struggling to figure out how to house a family member or keep up with the quickly rising cost of living in California.

In most of Marin, properties must have two parking spaces for the main home plus one that is independently accessible for the second unit.  There are a few jurisdictions that allow parking in the front or side setbacks, while some allow tandem parking (one car behind the other), and some waive the need for additional parking when the home is near public transit.  But parking requirements remain a major roadblock.  The towns that require covered parking for the main home make things even more difficult.  This effectively rules out converting a garage into a second unit.

We need to start thinking differently about parking, and put housing people ahead of housing cars.  The concern is that more housing equals more cars and more traffic, but the reality is that housing doesn’t create traffic, jobs do.  We live in an affluent community so we have a lot of jobs.  No one wants that to change, I’m sure.  Creating more homes near the places where people work leads to less traffic.  Few of us realize that 68,000 people commute in to Marin every day to get to their jobs and 16,000 have to travel over 1 hour each way!  (These statistics come from the Marin Environmental Housing Collaborative – you can read more here.)

Adding to the frustration as we struggle to facilitate the development of these little homes is that homeowners can park as many cars as they want outside their homes right now.  Homeowners can rent out as many rooms in their homes as they want right now, and for that matter, apartment dwellers can also have as many cars as they want.  And on top of that, garages don’t even have to be used for parking cars – a quick poll on one Corte Madera block revealed that only two of the nine garages actually house cars; the rest are being used for home offices, workout rooms, or of course to house stuff!

It is also worth noting that a major shift away from traditional car ownership is already in progress.  Shared cars like Zipcar and City CarShare are now a transportation option, and ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft also make car ownership less of a necessity.  The statistics bear out this shift.  Younger generations just aren’t as interested in owning cars as their elders.  Self-driving cars are going to further change the parking equation.  When you can request a car to come to your home to pick you up at a specified time, you won’t need to have your own car sitting in your garage or driveway.  You will be sipping a latte and networking on your way to work, not driving – how passé!  Even today the typical car is driven just over 1 hour a day, translating into about 8.5 hours a week.  And the cars that you do have will be half the size, so what was your two-car garage will now hold up to four cars.  But that doesn’t really mean much because who in California really parks their car in their garage anyway?  Check out these interesting pieces, How Driverless Cars Will Change Cities and How to think about the future of cars.  They really speak to the very different mobility future we are heading into.  All we need to do is create a parking bridge to get us there!

So let’s take a stand.  Community leaders need to hear that people want to create second units so that we can house our children, our parents and the people who serve our community.  We need to allow for creative parking solutions like parking in setback areas, tandem parking, and waiving parking requirements when a home is located close to public transit.  And eliminate all covered parking requirements.  San Anselmo waives the parking requirement for second units on any home located within 1 mile of a public transit stop, which seems to include most of the town!  Go San Anselmo!!!  Let’s not allow historically-based parking requirements and misunderstandings about commuter traffic to block creation of the very housing that is so needed to help alleviate the problem.  Removing barriers to developing right-sized housing will allow us to create socially and economically diverse, walkable, healthy, resilient, multi-generational, affordable communities!