Parking: A Tale of Two Churches

Parking expert Richard Willson reflects on the recent news story of a D.C. church opposing the construction of a bike lane in front of the church.

Religious institutions - churches, synagogues, mosques and other places of worship – are excellent prospects for shared parking. They need parking most on Saturdays or Sundays, in the morning, when there is lower overall parking occupancy. This post discusses two very different positions. The first is a progressive one that advances the church’s mission by selling off a church-owned parking lot and using shared parking resources. The second is a “protect our parking” approach common in disputes about parking, in which a church opposes bicycle lanes that would reduce on-street parking capacity.

Case #1. This is a positive parking management example from California. I recently helped the Board of the Pasadena Presbyterian Church assess the prospects for selling a surface parking lot it owns to a private developer for a mixed-use development. The sale included the condition that a small number of spaces in the new development are permanently allocated to the church, but the rest of the parishioner parking would be accommodated in the on-street and off-street parking in the Playhouse District. An analysis showed that there was plenty of parking capacity within walking distance of the church. The church is currently seeking city approval for a variance from the zoning code parking requirements. This arrangement converts an inefficiently used asset, a surface parking lot, into monetary resources that the church can use to augment its operations and advance its mission.

When it comes to approving shared parking, many cities are stuck in a counting game of seeking guarantees of shared parking access, requiring long-term agreements or covenants. This leads to complicated accounting that muddles property titles and makes parking owners wary of sharing. My view is that shared parking arrangements should be dynamic and changeable according to the circumstance of the entity needing the parking and the facilities providing it. Cities should rely on on-street parking prices to balance supply and demand, and to incentivize owners of off-street parking to share excess parking.


Photo credit: Richard W. Willson


Case #2. The second case, the United House of Prayer in Washington, D.C., shows that organizations often fight for the status quo. They raise the convenience of parking in front of one’s destination to the level of a human right, or in this case, a constitutionally protected right. Long story short, the attorney for the church has claimed that replacing on-street parking with a bike lane in front of the church is a government action that “substantially burdens” the free exercise of religion. The controversy is impeding the development of innovative parking management ideas.

The District of Columbia is evaluating where to build a bike lane on the east side of downtown. The church’s representatives are arguing that a reduction in on-street parking brought about by the lane infringes on its “constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection of the laws.” There is nothing in the constitution that creates a right to parking free in front of one’s desired destination. Some people may choose a church for the free parking, but that seems far from the more powerful explanation of finding a religious community that supports one’s personal growth and spirituality.

On-street parking is a public asset that should be used in the way that best serves the broader public interest. No one has a right to the on-street parking in front of a property s/he owns. But the “we own it” view is common, e.g., residential parking permit districts keep “outsiders” from parking in neighborhoods, and city governments rarely have the will to take on this notion. Acknowledging this political reality, a promising strategy is to price the use of on-street parking and return a portion of the revenues to the neighborhood for sidewalk repairs, street tree trimming, shared parking facilities, or other local priorities. That way, neighborhoods have an incentive to share their parking.

No one likes change, and I understand why the United House of Prayer is concerned. But opposing a bicycle lane would hold back progress in developing a multimodal transportation system. There are a host of way to get parishioners to church, including shared parking with nearby institutional or commercial uses, remote parking with shuttle busses, church busses, valet parking, time-specific conversion of travel lanes to parking, carpooling programs, taxi programs, and so on. It takes some effort but shared parking is a better approach than blocking the bicycle lane.