More Parking, Wider Roads, Bigger Houses and Yards? How Outdated Laws Get in the Way of Sustainable Community Planning

When a representative from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation (RIDOT) asked the audience how we’d gotten ourselves to the clean transportation listening session, most people raised their hands to “driving here alone in a car.” Including me. The meeting was convened to help RIDOT, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and the Office of Energy Resources collect public input on how to reduce global warming pollution from the transportation sector. Most in the room were involved in environmental advocacy or clean energy development in some capacity. Even in this crowd, it felt like the car was winning.

“People make rational decisions about how they’re going to get from point A to point B,” says John Flaherty, deputy director of Grow Smart RI, a non-profit organization focused on promoting sustainable growth in Rhode Island.

Overwhelmingly communities are recognizing the need to design places for the urban human rather than the all-terrain vehicle – but without enough cheap, safe, efficient and readily available alternatives to car transportation, people rationally choose to get behind the wheel. What is stopping us from constructing cities with public transportation options that work quickly and frequently, walkways that connect us to work hubs and allow our bodies to move and bike paths that get us to work safely and with fewer toxic emissions? In many places, there are antiquated legal structures that have kept principles of car-centered, sprawling suburbia entrenched.

Two significant legal barriers to smarter development are outdated zoning policies and laws that require parking spaces to be constructed for every unit of new development. How do thesegreencity laws shape community development?

  1. Outdated Zoning Policies. Zoning is a term for the ways cities and towns legislate what kinds of development can occur in which parts of their communities. For example, some plots are “zoned” residential for homes or apartments, some are zoned commercial for business construction and some are zoned industrial for intensive operations. Zoning became a popular form of community planning in the mid-20th century when government officials wanted to ensure that industrial operations with toxic emissions be kept separate from the places people lived and worked. Now, these zoning policies that mandate a single type of land use per parcel hedge against the denser, more walkable, mixed-use development that more people are seeking in their communities.
  1. Off-Street Parking Requirements. Many cities and towns have “mandatory parking minimums” on the books that require developers to build a set number of off-street parking spaces per unit of new development. This creates a glut of parking in valuable space that could be used more effectively for people. As UCLA professor of urban planning and parking-guru Don Shoup puts it in The Washington Post: “Parking requirements reduce the cost of owning a car, but raise the cost of everything else.” These laws stack the deck against more equitable and affordable communities that are walkable, bikable and transit-able.

The inertia of these laws keep town planners and developers chugging forward along a dangerous path toward a more carbon-intensive transportation system and more disconnected communities. But some RI cities and towns have been taking important steps to reverse trends of car-centered growth and create hubs of thriving human activity. Some examples include:

  1. Central Falls became the first town in New England to adopt a “complete streets” ordinance in January 2018. Planning for complete streets means designing transportation corridors that cater to transit, walkability, bikability and other green design principles (like accounting for stormwater run-off) in addition to drivability. Other towns in RI have adopted non-binding complete streets resolutions.
  2. Providence and Woonsocket have rolled back mandatory parking minimums in key segments of their communities to allow for smarter development based on walkability and public transportation.
  3. Exeter undertook a visioning process in 2009, plotting out limitations of community development based on their current zoning laws. In their report, planners explain that current growth trends will not lead them to the community they want: “Analysis of potential future growth under current zoning demonstrated that there could be more than 3,000 additional homes built in Exeter — more than doubling the number of existing homes. Spread over the countryside, this new growth would destroy our farms and forests, degrade community character, increase traffic and raise our property taxes to provide new services.”

There’s overwhelming support for less car-centric communities, says Flaherty. Towns can see the limitations of their current zoning practices and are working to change them. Policies have to change to make sustainable development choices more attractive at the local level.

“The market for what we refer to as ‘walkable urban’ is increasing,” Flaherty says. “Demonstrated by the cranes you see in the sky in downtown Providence.”

RI has a number of transportation planning initiatives in the works that can guide our 39 cities and towns toward thoughtful, human-focused growth plans. These include the clean transportation listening sessions focused on meeting the state’s emissions reductions goals in the transportation sector, a long-range transportation plan and a bicycle mobility plan for the state and a first-of-its-kind transit master plan. Planners are also developing new transportation infrastructure across the state, including a downtown transit corridor in Providence, a commuter rail station that will connect Pawtucket and Central Falls with the Amtrak line between Boston and Providence, a transformation of the 6-10 connector and a re-envisioning and redevelopment of Broad Street, a hub of activity on the South Side of Providence. At a forum called “Making Transit Work for Rhode Island,” the keynote presentation envisioned what a transit-connected Rhode Island could look like.

Community planners must continue to overturn car-centric and outdated laws in order to build the communities of the future.