In the years leading up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100 urban jurisdictions either reduced or eliminated their requirements for parking spaces at new urban multifamily properties.
The reasons and benefits behind this include enabling greater housing density, lower construction and housing costs, improved walkability, and reduced traffic congestion. Instead of cars, most residents of these buildings rely on local public transport, which reduces the cost of living as well as overall fossil fuel emissions.
Since the start of the pandemic, a reduced or eliminated need to commute has driven some households out of the cities or else accelerated an existing desire to move. For those who stay, new safety measures and fear of infection have made daily life a more difficult undertaking. It is unknown how long these changes could stay in effect—or whether they could have a lasting impact on new multifamily development and strategies.
However, when asked whether urban renters may eschew public transport in favor of cars, creating demand for parking at new urban multifamily properties, developers, researchers, and analysts are saying “probably not.”
Studying Public Transit
According to a study of 139 transit agencies carried out by the Transit mobile app, demand for public transit has dropped 53% since the start of the pandemic. However, starting in early April, ridership has begun to increase again—slowly but steadily, according to Transit data.
Public transit agencies around the world have implemented enhanced cleaning measures in order to ensure the safety of riders and instill confidence in its services. New York’s MTA, for instance, currently shuts down train service from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. to deep-clean its cars.
Ride-hailing services were among the biggest contributors to a lack of need for parking for urban residents, and continue to be so today. Both Lyft and Uber have rolled out safety requirements for riders and drivers, including masks and open windows. Uber allows either riders or drivers to cancel without penalty if the other party is not wearing a mask, and as of September requires some riders to take masked selfies before riding. While Uber’s ridership has fallen sharply—bookings fell 73% year over year in the most recent quarter—millions continue to use the service.
“The sharing economy, shared rides in this case, is not going away; hence fewer personal cars,” says Jim Anhut, director of the real estate investment management minor in The School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University. “People will adapt to new methods of personal hygiene and expect higher standards of cleanliness in modes of shared transportation.”
Studies of COVID-19 outbreak clusters connected very few major transmission events to use of public transport. In Paris, researchers from the Santé Publique France found only four clusters linked to the subway system out of 386 clusters total, or less than 1%. And in September, a study conducted by Sam Schultz Consulting for the American Public Transportation Association found “no direct correlation” between the use of public transit and the spread of COVID-19 in several U.S. cities.
Most important, both cars and the spaces needed to park them remain a hot-button environmental issue. “Sustainability and environmentally friendly planning are top of mind and a long-term trend,” Anhut says. “Parking spaces are necessary, but a waste of land. They need to be maintained. They shift the course of natural water runoff. More green spaces that could accommodate overflow parking would be more beneficial to the environment.”
Beyond the individual impact of using a subway system, recent research from Harvard University—not yet peer reviewed—has reported a tentative connection between higher exposure to airborne particulates and COVID-19 mortality rates. In “There Is Little Evidence That Mass Transit Poses a Risk of Coronavirus Outbreaks,” an E&E News article republished by Scientific American, Maxine Joselow presents a position held by some climate advocates: That difference in carbon emissions between cars and public transit could reduce air pollution, and by extension COVID-19 health risks.
“City or near city living is efficient and convenient,” Anhut says. “City dwellers and those businesses and municipalities that provide services to these dwellers will adapt and change to accommodate their needs… We are going to change our ways of living versus our place of living making all the changes and we will not rely on our apartment building manager to do all the heavy lifting in a post Covid-19 world. Masks are a visual cue of an enduring trend toward hygiene awareness. City dwellers are going to be more conscious of the surfaces they touch and their own personal hygiene. I prefer the word adapt over exodus.”
Short- and Long-Term Impacts
Altogether, the state of public transport paints a picture of a system that a large number of city residents are willing to adapt to, even if that adaptation may take some time.
“I think that people will slowly start to realize, ‘Hey, I don’t need to drive to work to live in an urban environment. I’m not going to need the parking spot.’ I think that’s probably going to happen in the next zero to 12 months,” says Matthew Segal, manager at his father’s firm, Jonathan Segal, FAIA.
During the development process for The Continental, designed by Jonathan Segal and Project of the Year in the 2020 Builder’s Choice & Custom Home Design Awards, the city of San Diego had required the project team to include an underground parking garage, which added 11 spaces at the cost of more than $1 million. The city removed its downtown parking requirements shortly after the development permit was approved.
“[The Continental] only has one parking spot for every four units, so it’s pretty limited anyway,” Segal says. “And we haven’t felt too much of a pushback from that. Generally the people that live in the building either don’t have a car or leave it at work and they walk. So as far as [changes to transportation preferences], I don’t know. I think it’s still going to take a bit of time for that to take effect.”
While Segal says that the firm is still trying to assess the design impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, he believes that focus should be turned inward on amenity spaces. “I think that the necessity of these kind of communal amenity spaces is going to be reassessed,” Segal says. “I know a lot of buildings are paying for these amenities that they can’t use or aren’t comfortable using. Because the communal aspect of them is going to kind of diminish, I think that’s probably going to be the biggest change.”
Of course not every household is able or willing to adapt, and those who no longer wish to live in a city are moving to suburban areas that may be more car-dependent. However, not all of this group’s considerations can be satisfied by adding more parking spaces.
“We are receiving measurable traffic from more prospects who have traditionally opted for urban living arrangements, but now want more private space and larger resident common areas to enjoy. The main feedback we’re hearing from these prospects is that they prefer to avoid crowded areas, and our suburban-oriented communities inherently provide that option,” says Kevin Keane, chief operating officer of The Bainbridge Cos.
Innovations and Alternatives
For developers that would like to offer parking or other automobile services, some alternatives do exist to surface or garage parking. A number of properties offer rental cars for exclusive resident use, including services that specialize in electric vehicles, such as Envoy. Mechanical parking structures, also known as puzzle lifts, are another solution for developers looking to economize on space at properties with high concentrations of drivers.
“The main reasons our systems are installed are usually one of the following: [the developer] can’t meet the parking count with conventional parking; reducing the cost, levels, depth and risk of excavation; or reducing the parking space to build more billable units and/or amenities,” says Scott Woodworth, business development ambassador at CityLift Parking, a company that manufactures and installs mechanical parking structures. “We have multiple installations in [transit-oriented] communities as well as affordable housing.”
Ultimately, the future will hinge on the progress of a vaccine and whether “normal” conditions can resume in a timely fashion. Given the lengthy time scale of multifamily projects, it is entirely possible that features designed to accommodate COVID-19 protocols may be unnecessary—or drive up costs—by the time the units hit the market.