Doug Gordon asked Twitter users which of these two images they preferred. Photos by Doug Gordon.

In early May, Doug Gordon, co-host of The War on Cars podcast, tweeted two street curb pictures and asked his followers, “Who wore it better?” One frame showed a parked BMW. In the other, the car was replaced by an outdoor rug encircled with blue and green chairs, all offset by the protection of an orange pylon border.

The post generated about 500 likes and nearly a dozen comments, one of which showed a transformation in Brussels, Belgium where a family used the single parking space in front of its home to create a community garden.

With the United States and many other countries in the tight grasp of the COVID-19 pandemic, these images are a reminder of how we’re conceiving “new normal” thoughts to improve transportation and quality of life.

In the Bay Area, residents began driving much less and started going for walks, runs, and bike rides to benefit their physical and mental health, as well as to satisfy essential-trip needs. With vacant lots lining many exercise routes, people could see a stark illustration of how much space is allocated to cars. Public health orders to shelter in place also contributed to clear skies and clean air, a taste of what state net-zero emissions goals aim to accomplish.

Bay Area nonprofit planning organization SPUR thinks this rare glimpse is a chance to unpack all the ways parking affects neighborhoods and consider whether cities might be better off with less, according to its April 27 report Sheltering in Place Reveals How Much Parking Dominates Our Cities.

“The visual in my head are the lots surrounding Diridon Station,” said Michelle Huttenhoff, report co-author and SPUR’s placemaking and public life policy director. “You can start to imagine the full potential of spaces if they were designed, not for a vehicle, but maximized for residential or open space.”

People often don’t realize the extent to which parking affects their community and local economy — from travel patterns and rental housing costs to the amount of open public space. In one attempt to grapple with these dynamics, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission spearheaded a Value Pricing Pilot project in 2015, supporting development of local and regional parking policies. It was all aimed at smart growth via affordable housing and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Part of the effort even included creation of a regional database to manage the ebb and flow of local parking conditions. But it has not been maintained.

More recently, an increasing number of U.S. cities have been reducing or eliminating minimum parking requirements for new developments, as the Minnesota-based nonprofit Strong Towns has illustrated with an online interactive map.

Now, the call to reconsider parking supply and demand is finding new meaning during this challenging time, with a range of adaptations across the Bay Area.

For example, COVID-19 testing sites are housed on lots throughout the Bay Area, from pavement at Cal State East Bay’s campus in Hayward to Stonestown Galleria in San Francisco. In the North Bay, the Corte Madera Town Center shopping mall moved the weekly farmer’s market to the parking lot from the previous storefront locations in order to provide space for safe purchasing. San Francisco’s AirGarage hosted pop-up drive-in movie nights on the parking lot of Berkeley’s Graduate Hotel.

Restaurants, grocery stores, and pharmacies are offering curbside service, appealing to more customers seeking minimal contact to pick up food and other essentials.

While services like Uber Easts already were putting greater demand on the curb before the coronavirus outbreak, current conditions have the potential to permanently change consumers’ shopping habits.

“Depending on how recovery looks, curbside pick-up and drop-off could be a long-term service,” said Terri O’Connor, formerly of the San Francisco-based transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard.

Meanwhile, “slow streets” in certain Oakland, San Francisco, and Emeryville neighborhoods were made car-free in response to the pandemic, helping prevent residents from feeling constrained by narrow sidewalks and giving them room to exercise.

Similar spatial thinking is behind a Golden Gate Restaurant Association initiative, according to a May 2 position statement. It is asking city agencies to help make it possible for restaurants and cafes to safely seat diners in open spaces around their establishments, including nearby parking spaces, street space, alleyways, and commercial corridors.

“Restaurants bring people together and act as anchors to commercial corridors,” the statement read. “We hope the City can expand its thinking on existing zoning and use of space to allow restaurants flexibility as they rethink how to operate after San Francisco’s local health emergency.”

Transportation advocates like SPUR have long argued the emphasis on driving and allocating space for parking has negative impacts. Not only is parking expensive to build, but it also can limit space for community connection and exacerbate car dependence, according to the report.

SPUR has been organizing virtual workshops to inform parking policy changes in conjunction with the City of San Jose. Through the American Cities Climate Challenge, San Jose is working with the Urban Land Institute and Nelson\Nygaard to update its parking requirements. It’s looking at on-street parking pricing and a transportation demand management plan.

Officials there also are considering getting rid of minimum parking requirements for new development. These minimums are local laws that require private business and residential development projects to provide a certain number of off-street spaces.

The proposed changes could go before the city council next summer. If approved, the elimination would boost the sprawling jurisdiction’s walkability and housing affordability.

“This is a bold move for San Jose,” said Michael Brilliot, San Jose’s deputy director of citywide planning. “San Jose is a city built around the automobile and many are still dependent on their car to get around.”

However, there is a growing understanding within San Jose that excess parking encourages more driving, which leads to more traffic, Brilliot added. The ripple effect impacts quality of life, as well as increases greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

To the north, San Francisco eliminated minimum parking requirements in 2018. It’s an approach that limits construction of under-utilized parking spaces that are expensive to build – starting at $30,000 for a surface parking lot space, according to SPUR — and increases the number of homes built onsite instead.

In the City of Walnut Creek, planners were days away from presenting a draft plan for transportation demand management to the city council when the shelter-in-place-order came down in March. Entitled “Rethinking Mobility,” elements of the draft plan include curb management, parking by zone and demand, and parking minimums, all of which are now being considered in the COVID-19 context.
“Those are the things we need to act on sooner rather than later,” said transportation planner Ozzy Arce.

Arce said he and his colleagues are having preliminary conversations with Walnut Creek’s business community, not only to plan for increased curbside models, but also to think creatively about how residents can safely experience destinations like Broadway Plaza beyond a transactional pick-up or drop-off site as the state reopens.

“We have to consider that the use of public space needs to be flexible, now and over time,” Arce said.

Underscoring any city’s planning efforts is the fact that personal transportation choices come with environmental costs, SPUR’s Huttenhoff said. Impervious surfaces of parking lots can inhibit rainwater filtration, while dark pavement can produce a “heat island” effect that raises air temperatures in urban areas and contributes to health problems.

There also are quality-of-life consequences. The biggest one now is whether transportation choices made during shelter-in-place will stick. Or are we just in a sweet spot, with an inevitable return to the safety and convenience of personal vehicles once restrictions lift and office commutes resume?

“Social distancing is going to become significant for riders in their equation about transit and when they take it,” said Frannie Edwards, deputy director of the National Transportation Safety and Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute.

Still, advocates cling to some of the more positive side effects of COVID-19 restrictions like blue sky, quiet streets, and clean air with the hope these outcomes become a permanent part of the post-pandemic picture.

“We shouldn’t assume we want to lose those things and go back to the way it was without talking about it,” said Dave Campbell, advocacy director at Bike East Bay, which worked with the City of Oakland to pioneer the slow streets program.

Cecily O’Connor covers transportation for the Monitor.