GCC: Minimum parking requirements must be revised

The revision of onsite parking requirements for middle- and lower-income housing projects could boost affordable housing development in the Middle East

Maysa Sabah is MD of the GCC region for the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI).
Maysa Sabah is MD of the GCC region for the Affordable Housing Institute (AHI).

In order to improve the feasibility of middle- and low-income housing, eight main links must be optimised. The cost of land, trunk infrastructure, site planning, design, financing, construction, offtake, and management must all be lowered, while producing high-quality units close to employment, healthcare, educational, and recreational amenities. In turn, policy-makers and developers must examine each development stage carefully, identifying associated costs and eliminating unnecessary ones.

In this context, the revision of minimum onsite parking requirements represents an opportunity for policy-makers to reduce costs for developers, both at the design and construction stages. Since surface parking consumes additional land, and underground parking is costly to build and maintain, such requirements may serve to reduce the number of units that can be built, and increase the development cost.

Minimum onsite parking requrements can negatively impact the feasibility of middle- and low-income housing, especially on small sites, and in places where land and other capital costs are high.

Requiring a minimum amount of onsite parking based on unit specifications, such as the number of bedrooms or the area of a unit, is a one-size-fits-all attempt to meet parking-related demand. Developed by international organisations, based on data from a sample of locations, generic parking standards apply to broad land-use categories, such as residential, office, and retail. These standards do not take into consideration site-specific characteristics, like neighbourhood density, walkability, proximity to public transportation, and the lifestyle of residents – all of which impact demand for parking.

Moreover, standard parking requirements do not serve the stated sustainability and livability objectives of many cities in the Middle East. Since households must pay for parking whether or not they own a car, excessive parking areas can encourage car dependency. Although several cities in the region are building metro and tram networks, or expanding existing ones, minimum onsite parking requirements remain largely based on the assumption that everyone uses a car and prefers to pay for parking.

Given changing lifestyles, the gradual emergence of alternative modes of transportation, and the need for more middle- and low-income housing, it is perhaps time to revise parking requirements. Many planners worry that more flexible parking requirements could result in a shortfall of onsite parking, but rethinking these requirements could enable developers to meet actual demand for parking creatively.

Onsite parking requirements could be made more flexible in a number of ways. One example may be to a shift from minimum to maximum onsite parking requirements for housing that serves middle- or lower-income households, projects located near to transit stations, or buildings on smaller or redeveloped plots. Alternatively, developers could experiment with car-free residential developments, partnering with local transport firms. A third option may be to separate the markets for parking and housing in multi-family buildings, with developers retaining ownership of parking spaces and leasing them to residents on an opt-in basis.

To be effective, and to control free-riding on public parking amenities, changes to onsite parking requirements must be supported by well-managed, on-street parking, and other public parking options. Advanced data collection technology could also be enlisted to measure parking use in residential buildings, and to fine-tune parking options based on real-world conditions.

A greater understanding of the relationship between the affordability of housing and parking requirements will be necessary to align the objectives of reducing car dependency, while providing more middle- and low-income housing.

By capturing the opportunities offered by innovations in urban mobility, embracing change, and thinking creatively, cities in the Middle East can become more equitable, livable, and sustainable.

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