In urban policy circles, Houston, Texas is best known for its laissez-faire approach to planning regulations. Some people go as far as saying that it has no planning rules at all, and attribute the city’s low housing costs to this fact.

This certainly has a grain of truth to it. As I wrote after visiting my brother in Houston last year:

It’s easy to see the results of Houston’s lack of zoning laws while driving around the city – or walking, in the unlikely event that you can find a footpath. There is a remarkable, eclectic mix of housing types – old shotgun shacks on grassy lots sit next to aluminium-sided townhouses and apartment blocks.

There are advantages to this policy. Because local governments in Houston allow people to build almost anything on their land, redevelopment and intensification can happen quite flexibly. (Unless it’s constrained by covenants established by developers or residents’ associations.) Here, for example, is a neighbourhood near Houston’s Medical Center (from Google Maps). There are a number of detached houses in the area – predominantly in the lower left hand corner. However, there are also many midrise apartments, flats, and attached houses to be seen near the top and right edges of the picture:

Houston housing near medical center

But, as with any good myth, there is also an element of fantasy to Houston’s laissez-faire reputation. You see, the city of Houston is actually extraordinarily prescriptive about the amount of parking that developers, businesses, and households must provide. A recent post from Hamilton Urban Blog pointed me back towards Houston’s parking code.

It’s a wonderfully absurd document. By my count, Houston has developed minimum parking rules for at least 75 separate activities. It sets separate minimum parking rules for activities as diverse as:

  • miniature golf: 1 parking space per hole
  • elementary schools: 1 parking space per 12 students – I’m not sure if Houston’s got ludicrously low class sizes or if it expects some primary schoolers to drive themselves?
  • apartments: 1.666 parking spaces per two-bedroom apartment – are demonic forces at work?

This raises a number of questions. First, why are those freedom-loving Texans willing to tolerate this level of regulatory overreach? Surely they don’t think that planning bureaucrats could accurately predict the needs of their businesses and families?

Second, are Houston’s parking rules leading to perverse outcomes? For example, could a regulated oversupply of parking have contributed to the city’s demand for more roads, which has helped put the state road fund in deficit to a tune of up to $5 billion per annum and forced it to stop repaving some roads?

Forget about the cost of roads, though: could Houston’s parking rules be pushing people directly towards dangerous activities like drinking and driving? Here’s the section of the zoning code that covers restaurants and bars. As you can see, Houston’s code requires bars to provide more parking than similarly-sized restaurants.

Houston parking ordinances restaurants and bars

Abundant, low-priced parking tends to encourage people to drive more, rather than taking public transport, walking, or catching a cab. Are Houston’s parking rules encouraging people to drink and drive? Has the city government actually studied the effects of this policy? And, if not, why on earth would you assume it would be a good idea to require bars to have loads of parking?

Lastly, while it’s easy to mock Houston’s absurdities from a distance, can we be sure that we’re not doing similarly absurd things? Planning regulations, like any regulations, can lead to perverse consequences. It’s important to keep an eye on them – and be willing to get rid of them if they aren’t working out.

Do you think we’re experiencing any perverse consequences from our planning regulations?

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  1. Wow, that’s a heck of a lot of parking for bars and restaurants – pretty much one per 10 square metres of space, or even higher for “small bars” or “nightclubs”. Absolutely nuts. The MPRs here would usually be one per 20 square metres for food and beverage uses, and even that is over the top.

    1. Given that a parking space occupies 25-30 square metres, that means that restaurants in Houston are required to have 2.5-3 times as much parking as floorspace. The whole thing is pretty insane.

  2. Total madness. Created a nightmare situation. Auckland wants to be liveable, even LTP results back, wow cycle No1,then rapid transit modes. Auckland Transport Strategic Fit the same including peds. Auckland City needs to follow suit and actually restrict parking!! Better still in parallel apply property rates to existing carparks for additional funding for the strategic modes. Let’s roll this baby fast and get on with it and all go 180 degrees to liveable.

    1. Look around at the impacts of fully catering for car at the expense of other modes. Last Friday 19 lanes required to chop out 80 year old natives, 3 days later Ports of Auckland want to go out 100m then fill in 2ha per annum, why ?? 45% by weight cars what is that space wise vs cement 90%? We are currently living in a city with no balance at all but tide is turning fast. So many stubborn idiots want to keep the status quo, the faster the majority roll this direction to destructuon the better. So many better choices, electric trains, busways, safe seperated cycle paths for kids etc. The governments complete disregard to this and the environment is criminal, definitely not getting my vote next election!!!

  3. At Waitakere City Council we were becoming more and more “sophisticated” with our minimum parking requirements, usually in response to some specific parking problem (though never noticing the vast areas of under-used parking). A restaurant conversion of a mainstreet shop would have to cough up $50,000 cash-in-lieu of extra parking spaces, and then quite likely fail in six months and revert to a shop (Although if they were clever they would show fewer tables on the floor plans).

    We managed to change it so that parking in centres was calculated at a single rate for ground floorspace, and a second lower rate for upper floors. Then we managed to remove the minimum parking requirement altogether in New Lynn and Henderson. Sky hasn’t fallen in yet.

    The Unitary Plan is a massive step forward – removing parking minimums from most town centres. But couldn’t it be even bolder ? How about rural town centres like Pukekohe ? How about residential generally ? How about schools ? .

    1. Great post Peter – good to see some change as John notes from inside councils, sadly there appears to be some unproven reasons for MPR’s in district plans, that don’t appear to be based on what happens in the real-life. To quote NZTA parking report 479 page72: “The absence of any monitoring of trips and parking after completion of the development, which would compare the real-life situation with the estimates at the time of applying for planning permission, is a major gap”

      Anyway here is example of change in Miami,

    2. Interesting to hear that history, John! I do think that the policy decisions on this issue are going in the right direction, even if not always rapidly.

  4. The operative North shore Plan still requires one parking space for every three restaurant seats, so the parking would take up more space than the restaurant. This even applies in Takapuna – where it is almost impossible to provide additional parking. So anyone wanting to open a business in Takapuna has to get resource consent, at their expense, to be excused from the parking requirements. This must act as a massive drag on business.

    The Proposed Unitary Plan is an improvement but it still has many absurd parking requirements: ‘taverns’ require ones car park per 20 m2 floor area, and one bedroom apartments in some zones have the same parking maximum and minimum of one car park. Any other amount of parking is prohibited!

    1. Yes the rules do require 1 per 3 seats as a starting point. But anyone who doesn’t want to do that can apply not to. They just have to do an assessment of what is actually required for their business and location. The same occurs in all areas except the central area. The advocates of no parking rules always forget to mention that dispensations from that rule are easy to obtain, you just have to provide an assessment.

      1. “The advocates of no parking rules always forget to mention that dispensations from that rule are easy to obtain, you just have to provide an assessment.”

        Yes that was my point – people have to provide an assessment at their own expense in an area where it is impossible to provide parking anyway. Adding extra expense and bureaucracy for people for no good reason is the definition of a bad rule.

        1. No good reason other than it ensures people mitigate their adverse effects and comply with part II of the RMA. Other than that I agree no good reason.

        2. To me providing an assessment to get dispensation makes sense when Parking Maximums apply, to check local roads can accommodate change in traffic volume.
          For Parking Minimums the assessment can be done after by council, by an assessment of on street parking demand and setting parking time limits on them, then actively enforcement of them, should not be hard to make self funding if it is real problem.

        3. “No good reason other than it ensures people mitigate their adverse effects and comply with part II of the RMA.”

          In Takapuna there is no land where parking could possibly be supplied, and providing basement parking in the centre would probably be in breach of other rules and objectives of the plan. So there is certainly no good reason to create a restriction that everyone needs to apply for a dispensation for.

          I knew you were a contrarian, but defending parking minimums, really?

        4. A more serious reply. Peter the capacity assessment is already done regardless of parking policy. Frank your point about Takapuna is a reason to adjust dispensation criteria rather than throw out a rule intended to manage effects. Throwing a away the rule will allow lower value uses to establish in centres while pushing higher value activities out of centres so I guess it depends what you want centres to be.

        5. The only winners from the argument that we should set minimums but expect them to regularly be broken if there’s a traffic assessment are the traffic engineers who make a living doing those assessments.

          You sure that’s not clouding your judgement mfwic?

        6. And this is why the RMA genuinely needs reform in key parts (as opposed to butchering to make it easier to shaft the natural environment). Planning should recognise that accommodating lots of people in a dense urban environment -without- having to justify why there is not lots of parking is nuts. It’s pretty much the definition of a good city. That the RMA or district plans define this as an “effect” to mitigate is a case of being out of touch with reality. We badly need an urban plan that actively enables good urban outcomes, rather than putting up arbitrary barriers.

        7. Exactly. Well put. More people, fewer cars; better city. If articulating the facts that clearly makes me ‘anti-car’ then so be it. But that’s still nonsense as I am only anti-urban-car, they are fantastic things for accessing dispersed non-urban places.

        8. Sure those are valid points but where in NZ is there a town centre of the scale we are discussing (not a CBD) where anyone has invested heavily in quality retail where there is insufficient parking? If you create a shortage of parking do you seriously think new money will go into that area? Most of Auckland’s town centres have a couple of a few bus services catering to some people and a heap of parking spaces on streets and in carparks that the majority of customers use. The choice isnt likley to be lovely big intesified town centres and people all showing up by bus. The choice will be little bottlenecked places or larger successful places with parking. It all comes down to what you want these centres to be like.

        9. ” If you create a shortage of parking…”

          Stop right there. Removal of MPRs will only result in a shortage of parking if developers and retailers are stupid enough to damage their commercial prospects by underproviding parking.

          “The choice will be little bottlenecked places or larger successful places with parking.”

          No, that’s not true either. There are enough local and overseas example of successful retail and commercial centres that people access by PT or on foot to know that seas of parking are not the only viable option.

        10. where in NZ is there a town centre of the scale we are discussing (not a CBD) where… there aren’t minimum parking requirements?

          Your challenge is to name an example of something that someone has already developed despite it being banned. Well there are dozens of examples of town centres developed before MPRs that are still very successful regardless, but I don’t know if any new ones that have been build against the law.

        11. “Throwing a away the rule will allow lower value uses to establish in centres while pushing higher value activities out of centres”

          Mfwic wants regulation to force a lower value land use (parking) than the free market would otherwise provide, in order to keep what he calls “lower value uses” out of centres?

          The only way I can possibly make sense of what mfwic is saying here is that he thinks high regulatory costs should be used to scare away small businesses (“lower value uses”) to clear the way for bigger players that can absorb those costs.

  5. The whole ‘being able to drink what you want’ thing always struck me as one of the big advantages of a good public transport system. You can go wherever you want, you don’t have to pay for parking, and you don’t have any restrictions on what or how much you can drink. Much better than being chained to a bloody car. I would’ve thought a good public transport system created good outcomes for the hospitality industry for that reason.

    1. Agreed Konrad. Hospitality industry should be pushing public transport all the way and making places better for pedestrians around their establishments.

  6. “Do you think we’re experiencing any perverse consequences from our planning regulations?” What about the introduction of parking maximums in the CBD leading to the major decline in market share of the CBD as both a retail and office centre. It is now not really a destination for shoppers and there has been a huge increase in offices outside the CBD where parking is available. Perverse enough for you?

    1. That’s funny. I must be reading this graph upside down:

      Removal of parking minimums was probably a key enabler of the mid-2000s apartment building boom in the city centre. It simply wouldn’t have been financially feasible to develop as many apartments if parking had to be bundled with them. The growth of the residential population has, in turn, had a virtuous effect on economic activity in the city centre, as it ensures that there will be people around 24/7 to patronise bars, restaurants, and shops.

  7. Maybe it is worth going back to why we have parking minima. The reason is to promote efficiency because left to itself the market fails. (same reason for most planning rules really). When someone puts in a high value land use activity and provides a parking resource to support it, the market will allow low value activities to occur next door who free ride on the parking resource. It is a good example of the ‘tragedy of the commons’. If a low value activity cant afford to provide the parking it needs then I would say it is using the wrong land. These externalities or adverse effects depending on whether you are an economist or a planner are the whole reason we have the RMA.
    Sure minima become unreasonable if your activity doesnt generate as much as the table says or if an existing building has no higher value activities possible or if the dispensation criteria are policed by pedants, but that is an argument to lower the rates and rewrite the criteria not give up trying. And certainly they are not reasons to apply maxima.

      1. By manage you mean put up a barrier arm and start towing people away who might just turn out to be a customer. We can all see how popular that will be. Look at Countdown Quay Park and how screwed they are by free-riders. In my view it is better for a centre to have everyone provide enough or the cost of enough parking and if that is a barrier to low value activities then that is probably a good thing. But instead of fixing the problems the PAUP wants maxima which will inevitably lead to bigger developers looking at out of centre development where they can provide parking. So much for intensification, that was a good idea!

      2. Still laughing at the simplicity of your comment. How do you expect Westfield to stop me parking in their building when I have to visit Auckland Transport at Henderson because some numpty built the Waitakere building with insufficient spaces? Even if they went to the expense of a barrier and tickets I would simply buy something cheap just like people do in Newmarket.

        1. How is a private landowner’s inability to stop others from parking on their land a public problem? It’s like requiring everyone to build their own cinema because Hoyts are unable to stop people sneaking into movies.

        2. My neighbor steals lemons from my lemon tree because he doesn’t have one himself. Clearly the town plan needs to force everyone to grow two lemon trees on every property in Aickland.

        3. Yes very good. The reason is because parking is most effective when it is non-excludable. Doesnt matter to the end user if the public provide it or private owners but like all non-excludable goods there are negative externalities when it is over used. The costs and benefits fall to different people. Because public parking is a resource it gets managed in terms of the RMA. (Unless someone excludes it for their own political ends). Lemons on a tree are excludable so is long stay tenant parking but short stay parking the costs of making it excludable exceed the benefits. And that includes on-street parking as well in most cases.

        4. I see your point, but parking is not a non-excludable good in any meaningful way, the way that clean air is for example. Making parking excludable may have a cost but it is not as high as distorting the entire land use of a city in order to stop free riders and make sure no one ever has trouble finding a park anywhere.

        5. Frank I think it is. You cant stop someone parking in an on street space and there are real downsides to making visitor parking excludable which is why it is only done in places like the CBD and Newmarket where land values are very high. The choice we face gets presented as town centres with parking and traffic, or town centres without parking where people use other modes. But that is fanciful. I can’t think of a town centre that has actually grown with parking restrictions (I am not talking about CBD’s where parking limits make sense). Removing minima is effectively a parking restriction designed to reduce supply and therefore increase the cost of parking. That is the promoters goal. Yet if you try it on a town centre will development still occur there? Maybe but certainly not the same development. If you know that half of your office staff will drive would you sign a lease in a town centre with limited parking? Or would you just go somewhere else? If you run a convenience store maybe it wont worry you but if yours is a destination store then it is probably one of your main issues. Rules have effects, that is the idea of the original post. Why screw up out town centres with parking limits when they are the very place we want development. How is public transport advanced by having town centres reduced to a few convenience stores and a few terraces.

        6. “Removing minima is effectively a parking restriction designed to reduce supply and therefore increase the cost of parking.”

          How is removing minima a parking restriction? It is removing a restrictive regulation. One that forces people to do something. Alcohol being legal doesn’t mean it is compulsory to get drunk.

          Parking maximums are a completely different issue and you are confusing the issue of parking minimums by mixing them into the discussion.

        7. Removing minima means some will build out their sites and replace parking with other uses. That reduces supply. They will then rely on any public parking or neighbours parking leaving less spaces available. That second part is an increase in demand but it has the same effect on those who made choices based on what was available.

          Lets face it the people promoting removing minima are not free market minded liberals looking to make things easier for developers. Most are simply trying to make it harder to drive by using parking costs as a second best policy alternative to tolls. My response is just toll if that is what you want. At least that wont put our centres at risk.

        8. +1 mfwic. It seems that those who propose ditching parking minimums seem to use the ‘free market’ argument when it suits their own anti-car agenda

        9. So cars need special regulatory support or they don’t work? Are no longer the natural choice in a free market. Oh dear.

          Won’t somebody please think of the cars? What if there weren’t so many suddenly, would you cope, would there be counselling?

        10. Maybe we should also stop subsiding public transport when parking minimums are removed…let’s see what happens to patronage then…

          In my opinion, people should have the choice to travel by whatever mode is the most convenient for them. This means that we should be supporting the development all modes I.e public and active transit as well as roading infrastructure and car parking. This also means that all modes of transport should be cheap and affordable. In Auckland’s cbd, there SHOULD be more focus on public and active transport. In the middle and outer suburbs, there still should be a strong focus on roading projects as well as providing high quality public and active transport.

          Do we really want to make traveling less convenient by being anti car, or do we want to provide choices for residents of Auckland?
          Do we really want to force people to use active and public transport by making driving a hassle?

          Oh, by the way, I don’t own a car myself and I solely rely on Melboune’s active and public transport systems…

        11. Richard roads are subsidised by property taxes so really that’s a big fat red heering. We could stop paying for anything like the Tea Party crazies think they want but that’s unlikey to lead to any kind of good outcome. This emotional talk of being ‘anti-car’ like they are sentient beings is just absurd nonsense. We are talking about dropping distorting regulations that serve no good purpose, are an anomaly from another time and place, not hurting the feelings of hunks of tin.
          ‘In my opinion, people should have the choice to travel by whatever mode is the most convenient for them.’ This is of course the desired outcome. However supporting parking minima has nothing to do with supporting choice and everything to do with reducing it down to one; driving for everyone, at all times, for every journey; like they pretty much do in Houston.

        12. Getting rid of parking minimums isn’t about being anti car it’s about being pro life. Also massive cost savings to new buildings. I think we have a major sustainability problem as pendulum now swung to multi modal and the quality of our public transport and active modes is about to shoot upwards as focus is not fully on car anymore it is about people. Do we need car park minimums when there are going to be such great choices to get around. Auckland Council needs to stand up and do there bit now!!!!Obviously traffic engineers concerned don’t need them anymore, and actually we don’t, learn about the other modes that’s what we are doing now, car already has a global network!!!Level of Service is for people now!!!!Become a transportation Engineer that looks at all modes in particular electric trains, busways, seperated cycling and pedestrians, then you might get work!!!Pushing a self serving desire for car growth is completely unethical, look at the LTP results so far cycling no1, then rapid transport.

        13. In my opinion having parking minimums means that it keeps one mode of transport relatively affordable – driving. Parking minimums does not force people to drive. This is the way it should be as all modes of transport should be cheap and affordable. It is the lack of development in public and active transit that forces people to drive.

          Stephen, as you say that you’re a civil engineer, how do you get to work everyday and how do you get your equipment to worksites?

        14. In response to Richard’s comment: “In my opinion having parking minimums means that it keeps one mode of transport relatively affordable – driving.”

          This is factually incorrect. Parking minimums _shift_ the cost of providing parking from drivers to property owners, but they do not actually _eliminate_ the cost. They might seem like they save money, but that’s just a false economy.

          Requiring all residential dwellings, offices, shops, and factories to provide a certain amount of parking has a large cost, because parking takes up a lot of space and land is expensive in cities. Households bear that cost in the end – through more expensive housing, through more costly goods in shops, and through reduced economic opportunities.

          Removal of parking minimums would not cause parking spaces to vanish entirely. But it would mean that people will provide parking (and pay for it) only if it’s got some value to them. The result of this is that we’d have a much more efficient urban economy.

        15. And in response to this point from mfwic: “Lets face it the people promoting removing minima are not free market minded liberals looking to make things easier for developers.”

          Would you put the economist Ed Glaeser into that category? When he came to give some talks in Auckland a year or two ago, he got asked for his view about what regulations we should change. His immediate reply was that minimum parking requirements had to go. Which is he – a lassez-faire economist or an anti-car ideologue?

          Similarly, my posts on transportblog are pretty conventionally neoclassical. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the importance of efficiency and choice in transport and housing markets, and a bit less time talking about transport-related externalities (such as avoided public health costs from walking and cycling) that potentially create a rationale for specific public policies. This is Econ 101 stuff. I’ve even posted some pictures of supply and demand curves. I don’t think it makes sense to assume that I am motivated by a nefarious hidden agenda.

        16. Mfwic @4:44. “Removing minima means some will build out their sites and replace parking with other uses. That reduces supply.”

          That comment has to take the biscuit here.

          Let me get this straight; you think building another use as opposed to car parking is a loss…? I think that’s the main goal of cities: intensive activities with less transport distance + associated burdens.

          Your suggestion that parking costs are a poor substitute for tolling also sounds ridiculous.

        17. The Waitakere building has insufficient car parking? The freaking thing is mostly car parking. That’s it’s biggest downfall. Everyone drives there. Need to develop the site.

        18. If your parking in Westfield and working for AT in Henderson right beside the train station, I would say they have already hired the wrong person to do their designs before they start!!

    1. The most common advertising sign on private property in Hamilton central is a NO PARKING Sign with contact details of towing company. Like to see you try using private property for free parking,

  8. Philip Hayward normally has a lot to say about how every city should be like Houston! He can’t have seen this posting yet. Expect him to drop by shortly!

    1. Maybe if he doesn’t show up I can give my contrarian view. The biggest problem Houston has is not its planning or parking but the fact it is part of the USA. That means it is subject to the US Constitution which is a worse form of tyranny than even HM George III could have dreamt up. It means every nut job can own guns so every nut job has to buy a gun, it allows minor states equal representation in the senate so constitutional change is nigh on impossible, it provides a separation of powers with too many branches of government which most of the time are controlled by differing parties. It was written as a slave owners charter that failed to address the issue of federal power versus state power adequately. If they got rid of it the USA could be a great place but with it they are screwed. Good lesson for us is never let anyone write a constitution, just let Parliament be sovereign.

  9. Great posting Peter. Shows how much parking sways things. So many better uses for that space everywhere. Seperated cycling on arterial roads taking parents off the grid and kids can bike to school, prime space in prime areas with infrastructure. Obviously some dinosaurs don’t want change, but change is here right now!!!Electric trains, light rail, busways, frequent bus network, seperated cycling and higher quality choices for pedestrians. 180 degree looks great for the future!! Centres aren’t about parking they are about people, check out the photos from the 50s, also huge gains in the new pedestrian focused areas right now, the people are actually coming back and more city dwellers.

    1. Thanks Stephen! I quite liked this point that you made above: “Getting rid of parking minimums isn’t about being anti car it’s about being pro life.”

  10. Here in Hamilton we have a right-wing liberal city councillor checking if council staff can enforce parking policy “vigorously” which they confirm.

    This how parking policy works – Parking Policy in Asian Cities
    Policy Lessons and Conclusions page89
    “There is no way to achieve orderly and efficient on-street parking except via effective on-street parking management” “Effective enforcement is crucial to on-street parking management” “Motorists will park in the most convenient spaces, in the streets, so long as the consequences or costs are minimal”

    1. Thanks for the reference Peter – I’ll try to find some time to take a look at that paper.

      The shared space example from Hamilton also illustrates the fact that good urban policies are not really a left-right issue. People from across the political spectrum can see the benefits!

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