To save paradise, stop putting up parking lots

Dallas officials consider ending minimum parking requirements

Guest post by Dallas resident Joan Susman

Dallas officials are currently considering reducing the city’s parking requirements.  The goal is to eliminate expensive and illogical directives that have undermined the city’s livability instead of enhancing it as intended.  The potential of this rewrite is consequential and far-flung, with great benefits for our environment.  

An urban planning professor at UCLA calls Dallas parking codes one of “the most bizarre I have ever seen.” For example, retirement housing must provide a parking space for every unit, even though many occupants no longer drive.  Another example is that large expanses of parking lots are required around Dart light rail stations, even though almost no one parks there.

These and other empty parking surfaces illustrate it is nonsensical to require them.  This is all the more true if, as some believe, our personal car culture has peaked due to ride-share services, shifting demographics and the anticipation of driverless cars. 

It would be one thing if making no sense were the only thing wrong with parking space requirements; but, unfortunately, that is hardly they case.  They have a costly and unhealthy effect on the environment that can only be undone if the requirements themselves go away.  Here are just a few of the ways that less parking can mean a cleaner environment for Dallas.

Reduced likelihood of flooding

Paved parking areas are impervious surfaces that prevent storm water from being absorbed into the ground.  As a result, the likelihood of flash flooding increases and even worsens over time as sudden influxes of runoff accelerate erosion.  Experts say that widespread flood events that used to happen once a century are going to become more common.  Dallas has a moderate risk of having a major flooding event over the next 30 years. 

Less water pollution

Storm water carries pollutants, such as sewage (poop), heavy metals, and pesticides, to nearby rivers, lakes and streams; and the negative effects of that will intensify as climate change causes more prolonged droughts.  When water levels drop, water quality does as well since the same amount of pollution exists in less water.  The current situation may not be dire, but it could certainly become so.

Polluted waters have a negative effect on plants and animals, and may cause nearby recreational opportunities to be curtailed. 

In 2018, WFAA reported that 4,800 gallons of sewage water overflowed into Grapevine Lake, prompting the state to advise against swimming in lakes “like Grapevine Lake” after heavy rains or sewage leaks. It is also currently unsafe to swim in the Trinity River (the part near Dallas), Bachman and White Rock Lake.  

Mountain Creek Lake in Dallas County is presently the only site in the area for which the Texas Department of State Health Services has issued an advisory against fish consumption

Dallas’ drinking water is considered safe for now since storm water pollutants are diluted in extremely large reservoirs.  However the demands of a growing population, in addition to climate change (fuelled in part from transportation related emissions), will cause water levels to drop

Lower temperatures

According to the Dallas Urban Heat Island Management Study (2017), more than one-third of Dallas is covered in impervious surfaces such as parking lots that absorb and then very slowly release heat from the sun. Which explains why among cities with a population greater than 1 million, Dallas is (or was in in 2017) heating up faster than any other city in the country with the exception of Phoenix.  

Areas of the city where impervious surfaces are most concentrated are called “urban heat islands”, where temperatures may be up to 15 degrees warmer than rural areas.  Downtown Dallas, West and northwestern Dallas are examples of heat islands. 

Rising temperatures have pretty pernicious ramifications.  Among other things….

  • Water demand is increased.
  • More heat exhaustion, heat stroke and deaths occur.
  • Air conditioning is used more, leading to more energy cost. 
  • Ozone pollution and particulate pollution in the air increase.

Cost of living decrease and more mixed-use developments

It is extremely expensive to provide the parking spaces required by city code.  After cost-reward analyses are made, many envisioned projects are shown to be unfeasible.  In particular, the higher costs mean that plans for mixed-use projects or lower- and middle-income housing often have to be scrapped. 

In the case of completed office or retail developments, higher costs are passed on to tenants.  For residences, the costs are recouped through higher mortgages or rent.  (In Austin the city staff determined that new minimum parking requirements from 2010-2020 increased housing costs an extra $75 a month.)    

One effect of all this is that the lower cost of the suburbs entices business and residential developments to go there. From an environmental perspective that means a hit to air quality as roads teem with commuters. Already, the Dallas-Fort Worth area is one of the most car-dependent areas of the country.  One analysis found that the Dallas-Fort Worth area is the worst large metro Texas cities to live car-free

As noted above the high price tag of parking requirements tends to make mixed-use projects unfeasible.  However, such projects are likely indispensable to achieving the goals of Dallas’ Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan. Mixed-use developments include a residential component as well as a commercial and/or retail component.  Their potential for helping to reduce carbon emissions is expanded when public transportation is nearby.  

According to a 2012 study conducted by the Arizona Department of Transportation, higher density and mixed-use developments designed to be walkable and accessible to regional transit could reduce residents’ vehicle miles traveled by an average of 25 percent

An EPA website recounts that in the most centrally located, well-designed mixed-use neighborhoods, residents drive as little as half as much as residents of outlying areas. 

For new or proposed mixed-use developments it’s important to estimate accurately the amount of traffic they’re likely to generate.  This is called “trip generation analysis.”  Older, standardized techniques are generally based on data collected from single-use, automobile-dependent, suburban sites, but recently the EPA created new data and methods for mixed use developments and made all of it available to interested parties.

It’s a Matter of Priorities

As Dallas faces the daunting task of revising its parking requirements, safeguarding clean air and water is the one objective that should override all others.  Toward that end, Environment Texas calls for a ban on all mandatory parking space requirements, with minimal exceptions.  At this time in the history of our city, for all the reasons laid out above, we view that policy as the most sensible and responsible.


Luke Metzger

Executive Director, Environment Texas

As the executive director of Environment Texas, Luke is a leading voice in the state for clean air and water, parks and wildlife, and a livable climate. Luke recently led the successful campaign to get the Texas Legislature and voters to invest $1 billion to buy land for new state parks. He also helped win permanent protection for the Christmas Mountains of Big Bend; helped compel Exxon, Shell and Chevron Phillips to cut air pollution at four Texas refineries and chemical plants; and got the Austin and Houston school districts to install filters on water fountains to protect children from lead in drinking water. The San Antonio Current has called Luke "long one of the most energetic and dedicated defenders of environmental issues in the state." He has been named one of the "Top Lobbyists for Causes" by Capitol Inside, received the President's Award from the Texas Recreation and Parks Society for his work to protect Texas parks. He is a board member of the Clean Air Force of Central Texas and an advisory board member of the Texas Tech University Masters of Public Administration program. Luke, his wife, son and daughters are working to visit every state park in Texas.