My Car Pays Cheaper Rent Than Me
November 23, 2015

Except that I do not own a car anymore. We sold our car when we moved to Hoboken, NJ. My wife and I both commute to Manhattan, and we are spoilt with trains, buses, and ferries. When we stick around Hoboken, we walk to restaurants, to parks, to church. Much of Hoboken's charm comes from the city being only 1.3 square miles, so pretty much the entire city of Hoboken is within walking distance. Occasionally we want to go off the beaten path and head into more suburban parts of New Jersey, and have used Uber (our average Uber trip costs around $10), but after living here for nearly 4 months, we've used Uber a total of 7 times. All of that combined is cheaper than just one month of what we were paying for car insurance.

Traditional homes along my street in Hoboken.

My point to telling you this is that Hoboken is one of the few places in the United States where not owning a car does not feel like a hindrance. In fact, this was a major selling point for us, and probably for a lot of other people (because the rent is incredibly high which signifies that there is a lot of demand to live here.) And still, like many cities across the United States, we have parking minimums.

These are the questions I like my city leaders to answer.

Why do we have parking minimums?

Seriously, why? What was the discussion going on in city hall when they thought this was needed? Is it to compete with the suburbs? Real estate prices in Hoboken are extremely high, a sign that there is huge demand to live here. I chose to live here because it is not suburban, so why would we adopt policies that make our city more suburban? Why do we adopt ordinances that make most of our city's character illegal if we were to develop it from scratch today?

A pleasing front courtyard of a multi-family dwelling. Modern regulations would probably encourage the developer to make this a driveway to a garage instead.

Who decides parking minimums?

Why do the parking regulations for Hoboken say a bowling alley requires 2 spaces per alley? Why not 1, or 3? Why do "planned unit developments" require 1 space per dwelling? How did we figure out this was the optimal number?

There is a saying at Google - data is king. You can't make decisions without data, especially not ones with long term implications. I would like to see the data that states 1 parking space per 200 square feet (not 100 or 300) of a skating rink is optimum to bring prosperity to the city. Where is the data to show these optimal ratios before it was encoded into city law forevermore?

A parking space is around 250 square feet. If we built 1 parking space per 200 square feet of skating rink, we would be dedicating more space to 'getting there' than 'there'.

In an urban neighbourhood where most people walk for local trips, why should local businesses be forced to accommodate cars?

The mayor said 95% of trips take place on foot. So, what would people in a dense urban community like Hoboken actually need a car for?

  1. Commuting to work (if they work far away from the ferries, buses, trains, and light rail.)
  2. Leisure trips.
  3. Commercial vehicles.

Probably not visiting the local bowling alley.

Washington St (Hoboken's main street) at 5:51am. No shops are open, yet every parking space is full. Clearly not benefiting the businesses.

Why do we think we can act in a business’s best interest better than the business?

It's within a businesses best interest to make as much money as possible, which means making themselves accessible so that customers can get through the door. Let's assume that the remaining 5% of local trips are done in a car (and not on a bus or a bike.) Should not a business not be the one to decide if they should dedicate expensive, valuable land to accommodate that 5% of customers that might travel by car, or if it would be better to put that space productive use to attract the remaining 95% of potential customer base that travels by foot?

Who do the parking minimums help? Not the businesses that would be forced to subsidize a very small minority of customers when they could make more money by putting that land to productive use.

Why do we subsidize and encourage driving?

It seems counterproductive. Hoboken is one of the few places where driving is optional, it is not necessary to have a car to get around. Every time we make it easier to walk, ride a bicycle, or use transit, more people will do so. Likewise, the easier to own or drive a car, the more people that will do so. Arguments that "we need to make it easier to drive, because we predict more people will drive" become self-fulling prophecies, because they will cause us to adopt policies that end up inducing people to drive. The city has initiatives to encourage residents not to drive, yet we cancel them out with every policy that makes it easier and encourages people to drive.

If parking is such a problem holding the city back, how come the streets thrive with people when closed to cars during special events?

Washington Street during the Hoboken Arts and Music Festival.

A bank's parking lot transformed into an exciting place for people.

Every City Believes They Have a Parking Problem. Enough said.

Why should my car pay cheaper rent than me?

A parking garage in Hoboken advertising parking spaces for $300/month.

An on-street parking permit is $15 per year, or $1.25 per month. Using the garage above as an example, you can rent a parking space for $300 per month. Let's assume an average parking space is 250 square feet. Housing a car on the street costs $0.03/square foot/month, and housing a car in a garage costs $1.20/square foot/month. In contrast, housing a human in Hoboken averages around $3.25/square foot/month (at the time of writing, this source updates daily.)

Hoboken has an affordable housing problem. Having shelter is a basic human right, housing a car is not. Why does it cost a person 108x (per square foot) to house themselves over their car?

Affordable housing. $15/year rent. Bring your own tent.

What could we do with a parking space instead?

This could replace maybe 2 parking spaces.

I am not implying that we should start doing building parking space sized homes on our street, but to point out the real inequality we get from subsidizing car housing over human housing, both in the public and private realm.

On-street parking spaces in Hoboken. Rent your own for $15/year! Apartment not included.

A parking space in Hoboken would average around $812.50/month if housing a car per square foot matched housing a person. Naturally, housing a car is going to be a little cheaper, because a car doesn't ask for plumbing and air conditioning and requires little maintenance. But, let's say you had floorspace in a building and wanted to get the highest return out of your investment and you wanted to get as much per square foot as possible. Not many people are going to pay $800/month for a parking space, and I imagine that is why these large apartment complexes, that were required by zoning to provide parking, are renting the spaces for $300/month, in order to get enough demand to rent them out. But, we have a housing shortage, so if given the choice, would the building owners have preferred the floorspace of their building making 2.7x per square foot as apartments instead of parking spaces? In effect, parking minimums are forcing property owners to take a loss. For the record, $800/month is only $1.10 per hour. People are willing to pay $10 per hour around here.

I don't truly understand the economics of free market parking prices, and in the cities I have looked at it is substantially cheaper to house a car (a luxury item) per square foot than a human (a basic human right.) Here are the most expensive major American cities to rent a monthly parking space;

But, I am skeptical at efforts for trying to compare the market pricing between parking and housing, because I do not even know if there is a fully built up American city where housing and parking is completely unregulated and unsubsidized so that we can understand the true market value between the two.

What is stopping us from eliminating parking minimums?Hope is not lost. We can repeal our parking minimums, and go back to building great fine-grained urban places that people love, that put our valuable and limited land to productive use, and will make our city economically resilient and financially stronger. Regulating something just for the sake of regulating it is a dumb approach. If people want parking, let them pay for it. But, to force businesses to take a loss to subsidize parking when we have a housing shortage is unnecessary and harmful. It is time for the United State's most walkable city to join the list of cities that have eliminated parking minimums.