Once upon a time, lawmakers in a magical land called Pizzapolis found a way to end hunger. Their solution was to require that every business, regardless of type, provide free pizza to all their patrons. Doctors, lawyers, and gas stations all had to provide free pizza if they wanted to have a business license and operate legally in this magic utopia. Instead of coming up with a comprehensive solution at the state level, legislators decided that private businesses would be more efficient at providing for this need, which also reduced the cost to the state. Viola! The private market would work at peak efficiency, and no one would go hungry ever again.
Life with free pizza was great at first, but it didn’t take long for things to go south. Business owners didn’t care about providing delicious pizza, because their only concern was satisfying the law. Who would expect good pizza from a mechanic anyway? A few enterprising businesses tried to sell brick oven pizza, but they were run out of town. “Who in their right mind would CHARGE for pizza?” the Pizzapolonians said. “They must be evil, greedy business people. People have a right not to go hungry, don’t they understand that?”
The pizza requirements were especially hard on small businesses. Even the local dentist, accountant, and candlestick maker had to install a pizza oven in their shops to comply. The ovens took up a lot of space, and the heat from the oven wasted a lot of energy. People talked about building more energy efficient buildings to cope with the new demand, and laws were passed to require this, but many exceptions were provided to not count the energy needed for pizza ovens. The small businesses owners really just wanted to clean teeth, balance books, or make candles, but a significant part of their business had to support the free pizza. They had to charge a lot more so they could pay off the loan on the pizza oven and all the pizza ingredients that they constantly had to restock.
The whole economy shifted to facilitate pizza production. The pizza oven industry became huge, and the dairy industry reaped all kinds of benefits from an unending market for cheese. Giant factory farms pumping out tomatoes for pizza sauce soon overtook the small farms that couldn’t keep up. Waste removal contractors had to scramble to deal with the tons of uneaten pizza that piled up in heaps on streetcorners and sidewalks.
Not everything was bad, though. Several tech companies began developing mobile pizza ovens. At first they still had drivers, but some companies built autonomous mobile pizza ovens that could drive themselves to wherever pizza was needed. Businesses were able to subscribe to this on-demand pizza service and not need a pizza oven in their office, store, or hotel, which freed up space and capital. However, many folks were skeptical. When you live in a world where free pizza is all around you, waiting a few minutes for a slice to be delivered seemed very inconvenient. The big pizza oven companies were also concerned about this, because they realized that one pizza car could serve many businesses. This would dramatically cut down on the number of fixed ovens they sell.
Do you get it? The pizza is parking. In our world, businesses aren’t required to provide free pizza, and uneaten pizzas don’t cover the sidewalks. But current zoning laws do require that all businesses provide free parking, and those requirements are just as taxing on usable square footage and revenue as the metaphorical free pizza.
As we’ve discussed in previous posts, parking requirements have a myriad of negative effects on development and the urban environment. The giant swaths of pavement required for parking make dense development impossible and degrade pedestrian experience.
We work with a lot of small local business owners who are looking for more space to grow their business, often in existing buildings. We believe there are few better ways to strengthen the identity and economy of a community than to have local business owners operating in repurposed existing buildings. We’ve encountered countless examples of clients coming to us with an old building that exactly serves their needs and is within their budget, only to have to tell them that they can’t operate there because it lacks the required amount of parking. Dialing back these requirements would give a lot of small businesses a chance to grow by reducing development costs and would facilitate the socially and economically diverse communities that embody the identity of a city. Incorporating unique small businesses into the fabric of local communities is a key element of that identity, and locating them within existing buildings preserves and strengthens the character of the community by providing a tangible connection to local history.
If you’re interested in learning more, start with Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking and Richard Wilson’s Parking Reform Made Easy. Richard was kind enough to let us share a chapter from his book on our blog, which you can find here.