Officials in Charleston, South Carolina, have been thinking about what to do about parking for close to a decade, says Ross Appel, a city council member and land-use attorney. In January, the council voted to use its emergency powers to do away with parking-minimum policies on its historic King Street for 60 days. The policy is meant to help businesses lease vacant storefronts during an economic downtown.

“Minimum parking requirements are sometimes a very expensive, risky, and complicated barrier for new businesses to open,” Appel says. Plus, the policies tie land use to cars. “It’s like a baked-in subsidy that perpetuates a norm of the automobile,” he says. Two businesses have taken the city up on the offer, and the council has discussed making the change permanent.

Busting norms is not everyone’s cup of tea. Historically, messing with parking can make business owners nervous. In many cities, business proprietors have pushed back against parking changes, afraid that potential customers won’t stop to shop if they can’t park. But the pandemic has changed the way many make money—and shifted their opinions on how the curb is used.

“Businesses have transformed to pickup and drop-off, and to a kind of hybrid between online and brick-and-mortar,” says Vineet Gupta, director of planning at Boston’s Transportation Department. So the city has reserved spaces for pickup and drop-offs, for food deliveries, ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft, and for goods deliveries from companies such as Amazon. “Businesses understand that how we look at our code also has to change,” he says.

“There’s this idea that public parking is the paradigm for use of public space. And that’s crap.”

Warren Logan, director of mobility policy, city of Oakland

Adam Baru’s two restaurants, Mani Osteria and Isalita Cantina, operate out of the same building in downtown Ann Arbor. Together, they have access to up to eight parking spots under the city’s new policy. The restaurants used the spots for outside dining—they can seat almost 100 people—and to reserve space for those picking up takeout. Parking is generally dear in the downtown, but for now Baru credits the programs, plus his team’s creativity and a well-timed PPP loan, with his restaurants’ survival. “It’s not like we made a lot of money. But at least we were able to keep people employed,” he says.

Now that the initial pandemic panic has passed, cities are left with a pressing question: If streets aren’t private vehicle storage, what are they for, exactly? Who are they for? In Oakland, the city’s quick response to Covid allowed businesses to use parking spots as parklets and freed up street space for recreation instead of cars. But the programs faced pushback in the city’s Deep East neighborhood, home to a majority Black population. Some felt as if they hadn’t been consulted before the city went ahead and changed their transportation systems—and that the changes were part of a decades-old effort to push Black residents out of the city.

The response made sense to Warren Logan, the director of mobility policy in the Oakland mayor’s office. “It’s not unreasonable that Black people who have been pushed to the farthest ends of the city feel like every little thing is going to be the last straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he says. “It’s a historic trauma response to systemic racism.” Now, officials are reassessing.

Officials asked community members in East Oakland what they wanted and needed from a transportation revamp; community members emphasized more traffic safety. The city will now put $17 million in just-won grant money toward street design tweaks to slow local traffic. Oakland officials have learned a lot about how to implement big changes quickly, says Logan. But the ideas have been the same from the beginning of the pandemic. “There’s this idea that public parking is the paradigm for use of public space,” he says. “And that’s crap.”

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