October 19, 2017 — Belmont Citizen-Herald
The Belmont Planning Board recently discussed what steps could be taken to “revitalize” Waverley Square. The need to engage in a town-wide conversation about how to attract new development to Waverley Square has long been recognized. One of the first steps that could be taken, however, would benefit Belmont’s other business districts as well. Belmont should revisit what parking requirements are required by local zoning regulations given today’s world of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.
There can be little question that as ride-sharing services expand, both the use of cars and the corresponding need to park those cars, is being reduced. As one parking analyst notes, “parking is what cars do most of the time. The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place.” It is not unusual for a community to devote up to four or five parking spaces somewhere in town for every automobile that is owned. That, however, will not continue. Another firm, which specializes in urban parking issues, recently estimated that “current parking needs will be cut in half in the next 30 years.”
Ride-sharing has been found to reduce parking needs for service establishments such as local restaurants in particular. When one thinks about it, the reason for that reduction is evident. Uber-delivered patrons don’t need parking spaces because the cars in which they arrive (and depart) are never parked. William Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, explains that the only way Uber drivers make money is to keep their cars in motion. And, as Kinder says, “every Uber ride means one less car in the parking lot.”
Multiple studies agree that the increased use of ride-sharing services is decreasing the demand for local parking. The University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, for example, concluded that “if you’re in a big city with a large ridesharing car fleet in operation, there may not be much need to own your own vehicle—after all, getting a ride is only a couple taps away.” Similarly, a survey of 1,200 people in Austin (TX) reported that 41% of respondents increased the use of their personal cars when Uber and Lyft were driven from town by local regulation.
From a climate change perspective, increasing the use of ride-sharing services helps a community reduce its carbon footprint. Jason Bordoff, a former energy advisor to President Obama explains that even though ride-sharing may expand the total number of miles driven by some cars, “they also improve the economics of electric vehicles, which have higher capital costs but lower operating costs, by sharply increasing the utilization rate of cars.” Bordoff concludes that “all of this matters for energy and climate change.”
Recognizing the reduced need for parking, and incorporating that recognition into our zoning bylaws, would offer two positive impacts to Belmont businesses. First, it would quite literally take less space to operate a business if fewer parking spaces are required. More locations in Belmont would become economically viable. Second, providing parking spaces is expensive. Requiring a number of parking spaces that exceeds that which, in reality, is needed by a business imposes an unnecessary cost to operate that Belmont business.
The Planning Board recently reduced the mandatory parking requirements to allow a new restaurant to open in Belmont Center. It would benefit the town and our local business community if that was not simply a one-and-done decision. Updating our local zoning to reflect declining parking needs in light of contemporary transportation choices would be sound climate change policy, sound business-development strategy, and a sound first step forward to help redevelop Waverley Square.