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Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar
Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar is an in-depth look at the hidden costs and seldom-seen negative impacts of parking policy such as traffic congestion, housing affordability, and the environment. Even more than the roads themselves, he argues that parking informs how and where we live.
Studies estimate that there are anywhere from a billion to over two billion parking spaces in the US. There are up to 8 parking spaces per car. An average spot is 330 square feet for a total of up to 2640 square feet of parking per car. More area is devoted to housing each car than devoted to housing each person.
"We quickly realized there were way too many parking lots in the real world and that our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots." - Stone Librande on developing SimCity (2013) to reflect the real world.
How We Got Here — Parking Minimums
"Parking minimums were like 'dark energy,'' Don Shoup wrote, that hidden force that powers the expansion of the universe. Parking minimums powered the expansion of the city."
In the mid-20th century, as highways were built, people moved to the suburbs, and as driving proliferated, cities were overwhelmed by traffic. “To the disappointment of some local officials, the big roads were not accompanied by federally funded parking garages, but they did entrench downtown’s dependence on suburban drivers.”
There wasn't enough curb parking, and the cities couldn't afford to build off-street parking themselves, so they forced “the private sector to fix the parking problem” for them by instating parking minimums — laws that required new developments to include a certain number of off-street parking spaces based size and function. A residential development might require a certain number of spaces per bedroom; a store based on its square footage.
The idea expanded nationwide in the forties, fifties, and sixties. “Over time, it was this decision, more than the highways or the malls or the tax-poaching suburbs themselves, that would prove the most influential legacy of the midcentury downtown parking crisis.”
“In the end, excess parking harmed cities more than the shortage had.”
These laws had little or no basis for how they calculated the minimums. When based on studies, parking was often mandated to accommodate the estimated peak moment of demand, such as a mall being required to have enough parking for the busiest shopping day of the year, and thus sitting mostly empty the remainder of the time. Or worse, parking minimums were used for racial discrimination and to reject low-income housing.
Parking requirements have therefore strongly shaped the architecture of buildings. The book presents this diagram by Alfred Twu that beautifully illustrates how form follows parking requirements:
Building parking is expensive. Parking garages cost more than $20,000/space and even surface parking—simply coating land with asphalt—costs a couple thousand dollars per space. Not to mention the cost of the land and the opportunity cost of using it for something else.
“You think architects design buildings, but actually we just arrange parking spaces” - Daniel Dunham
These costs, plus parking requirements created the “Valley of High Parking Requirements” where most new development in America falls at one of two extremes: either single-family detached housing and low-slung commercial box stores, or high-density, high-value development that can afford to build expensive garages. “Anything in between was impossible to build because it was impossible to park—surface parking would take up too much room; structured parking would cost too much to build.”
It’s a vicious cycle. “Parking creates sprawl. Fear of parking shortages or parking minimum laws make dense urban development prohibitively expensive, and forces developments to devote more of their land to parking. This has a domino effect, creating an environment in which it becomes difficult without a car, and then a car becomes necessary.”
A 2015 study of nine American cities found that parking growth between 1960 and 1980 was a “powerful predictor” of car use between 1980 and 2000. “More parking appeared to cause more driving, not the other way around.”
It’s not just parking mandates that lead to excessive parking. Banks, developers, and businesses have embraced it as the norm. It’s seen as risky to have little or no parking. David Cunningham of Granite Properties said it's difficult to convince businesses to reduce the amount of parking they want for their offices, even when they're well over code. Yet of their “portfolio of twenty thousand parking spaces. On any given day, approximately half sat vacant...it cost us one hundred million dollars just to build the vacant ones...Millions and millions and millions of dollars in concrete and steel...forever wasted."
"[The facilities guy] would get fired if there wasn’t enough parking, but he’d never have to answer for a lease that was in line with the office market at large."
The Hidden Costs of “Free” Parking
The amazing thing, despite the high costs of building parking, is that almost all of it is free for drivers. Free in those mandated lots at home and the office. Free on almost every curb in U.S cities. New York City has the largest number of metered curbs in the U.S., but they only make up 5% of its curbs.
“Land in Manhattan was the most valuable in the world, but it was free if you wanted to use it for just one thing: storing your car on the street.”
But of course, nothing is truly free. Donald Shoup (the country’s “foremost parking scholar”) estimated that “the annual American subsidy to parking was in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”
“You paid for it in the rent, in the check at the restaurant, in the collection box at church. It was hidden on your receipt from Foot Locker and buried in your local tax bill. You paid for parking with every breath of dirty air, in the flood damage from the rain that ran off the fields of asphalt, in the higher electricity bills from running an air conditioner through the urban heat-island effect, in the vanishing natural land on the outskirts of the city. But you almost never paid for it when you parked your car.”
Free (or severely underpriced) curb parking in busy destinations creates a shortage of available spaces, a “localized supply-and-demand crisis”. This shortage compels “arriving parkers to cruise for spots, which puts hundreds of millions of miles on the road each year, or double-park, which generates traffic congestion. This traffic is not the product of a lifestyle trade-off. There is no social benefit to be weighed against the lost gasoline and lost time. It’s pure waste.”
But circling for curb parking is also the rational thing to do. “The most expensive meter in Boston was $1.25 an hour; the median off-street garage downtown was $12 an hour…The expected windfall from cruising in Boston was $10.75 for every hour you planned to park…No wonder everyone was driving around the block all day.”
Surprisingly, cities seeking to maximize profits may have a perverse incentive to underprice parking. When curb parking is too cheap, it becomes hard to find a spot. This encourages breaking the rules—either double parking or parking in illegal spaces which in turn allows the city to impose big fines.
“When meter systems are working well, enforcement revenue goes down, because people can always find a place to park.”
Yet if a city’s goals are reducing traffic and making it easier to park, they need to price spaces properly. A 1960s study in London showed that high curb pricing reduced the time people were parked, which in turn made parking easier to find. But it’s not that it needs to be high — it just needs to be priced correctly. When San Francisco piloted dynamic pricing on its curbs the total amount of driving in pilot areas reduced by 30 percent and double parking dropped by 22 percent. This was because availability in high-demand places was increased by raising the prices. But prices weren't increased everywhere — they dropped prices in underutilized areas which resulted in more even utilization everywhere.
Parking and Equity
One argument for free parking is that it’s a form of equity, equity for those who are forced out of cities by high housing prices, forced into living in a place where owning a car is a necessity, forced into driving back into the city because there is no other alternative. “The city didn’t belong to them anymore. What remained was free parking. In a city where living without a car could be a privilege, those congested curbs had a kind of egalitarian force. It took time to find a spot when parking was free, but time was the one thing we’d all been given in equal measure.” To reduce the availability of parking or increase its price “is a penalty that falls on the backs of those who can least afford it.”
Yet the author feels that this is a hollow argument. “Parking is access. But it is access of the most superficial sort, one that often papers over deeper inequities we’re unwilling to address. Ample parking at the ball fields feels like a requirement because the roads are too dangerous for parents to let kids ride their bikes. Free parking near campus looks good for students who can’t imagine living close enough to walk. Easy parking in wealthy neighborhoods is a lifeline for workers who will never be allowed to live nearby. And acres of parking downtown feels like a right to commuters and shoppers when the bus comes only once an hour. In each case, parking stands for a primitive kind of access that both overshadows and impedes a more profound and widely held right to the city.”
Parking requirements are a major reason that building affordable housing is so difficult. As we established, building parking is expensive, driving up the cost of units. And costs plus regulations make it impractical to build mid-rise buildings, the types of buildings where affordable housing makes the most sense.
Explicit affordable housing aside, parking requirements make building all housing more expensive. Which means less of it is built. “Despite the cranes outside your window, the country produced fewer new homes in the 2010s than in any decade since the Second World War.” Less housing supply means higher prices across the board.
Yet it’s not a surprise that we find ourselves here given the priorities of the people in charge. “In one 2022 survey of twelve thousand U.S. adults, more than half of baby boomers, a group that tends to dominate local politics, said free parking was more important than affordable housing in their neighborhood.”
The Invisible Impacts of Parking
The most important consequence of parking is all the driving it incentivizes.
Free parking at home increases car ownership. A study across nine U.S. cities found that “parking built into houses and apartments is a greater predictor of car use than density, transit, or any other neighborhood attribute.” In San Francisco affordable housing “lottery winners who wound up in buildings with one parking space per unit were more than twice as likely to own cars as those who wound up in buildings with no parking."
Free parking at the destination also encourages more driving. “Between 80 and 95 percent of American workers get free parking at the office. When workers are forced to pay for parking themselves, the share of employees driving to work alone falls on average by 25 percent.”
With all of that driving comes climate change, air pollution, health problems, and crashes.
“Transportation is America’s largest source of greenhouse gases, with drivers in Texas alone accounting for half of 1 percent of global carbon emissions. Ground-level air pollution causes hundreds of thousands of deaths every year and is linked to a number of public health problems including lower test scores in children and Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Sprawling settlement patterns are associated with higher levels of obesity. Cars [sic] crashes are the leading killer of young Americans and injure three million of us every year—including many pedestrians and cyclists, among whom minorities and low-income Americans bear the brunt of the damage. Not surprisingly, car-centric environments lead to the most injuries for both drivers and pedestrians.”
But the environmental harms of parking go beyond induced driving:
“The production of cement is responsible for almost 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and lots and garages are part of that total, as is all the infrastructure required to serve the sprawl.”
Suburban development is wiping out natural land. “America lost 460,000 acres of wetlands, for example, every year in the 1950s and ’60s, and 290,000 acres a year in the ’70s and ’80s.”
Pavement contributes to the urban heat island effect, which makes cities hotter than natural areas.
“‘Impervious’ cover such as parking lots may increase runoff and flooding by up to a factor of ten.”
Roads and parking lots contribute to water pollution. Outside of cities runoff “often goes straight into lakes and streams.” This includes motor oil, tire rubber, air pollution residue, heavy metals, road salt in the winter, and smoldering blacktop in the summer.
The Future of Parking
Reducing Parking to Reduce Driving
Parking isn’t “the only way to get fewer people to drive. But because every trip ends with a parking space, it’s the easiest.”
The sheer number of parking spaces we have “may help explain America’s status as a global outlier in driving. In 2017, per-capita car ownership in the United States was only moderately higher than in Western Europe or Canada [by about 25-30 percent]. But Americans drove twice as many miles each year as people in peer European countries” and drove 60 percent more than Canadians (an equally large country).
But as mentioned above, reducing parking at the destination can shift people to other modes. And there may be more room for mode shift than you’d initially expect. Even in sprawling U.S. cities, many trips are under one mile which should make it more feasible to shift those trips to walking or biking. As some examples, 67 percent of trips in Miami are under one mile, yet only 20 percent of trips are taken without a car, and 55 percent of trips in Los Angeles are under one mile but only 17 percent of trips are non-car1.
Despite the beliefs on parking long held by municipalities, developers, and banks, when cities do reduce or eliminate parking minimums, less parking is built. “In Seattle, developers taking advantage of reduced parking minimums built 40 percent less parking than would have been required. Over five years, the reform lowered the cost to build new apartments by approximately half a billion dollars.”
There are effective solutions a city can take besides blanket parking reform. For example, Charlotte allowed a mixed-use development to share parking. Mixing uses unlocks efficiencies, among them is parking. A residential and office development that required space for 350 cars for each use would never need 700 cars at the same time and was allowed to build 480 instead.
But eliminating parking minimums might not be enough. “One of the ironies that has emerged in recent years is that central, walkable neighborhoods have become in vogue among rich people who own more cars…developers are building more parking than they need to—because luxury buyers are willing to pay a premium to park in them.” London became “the standard-bearer for reversing” parking minimum policies when it replaced them with parking maximums in 2004. In the seven years following, 144,000 fewer parking spaces were constructed than would have been under the old law.
Reimagining the Curb
The curb productivity index measures curbs by the total utility they produce. "If a couple parked their car for four hours, those twenty feet served just 0.5 people per hour. If an eighty-foot bus stop served 100 straphangers in four hours, 6.25 people were served per hour per twenty feet of curb...Between bus stops and car storage on the productivity index were a variety of other uses: bike-share stations, food trucks, car-share parking, parklets, loading zones for freight, pickup and drop-off zones."
To further underline the stark difference in utility between public curb parking and public space for people: William Whyte surveyed one block in Manhattan in 1974 for twelve hours and counted “thirty-eight thousand pedestrians walking the twelve-foot sidewalk.” In comparison “the nine-and-a-half-foot-wide curb lane was used by twelve cars carrying all of fifteen people!”
Rethinking the curb isn’t simply about reducing the amount of space for vehicles. It’s about using it as a tool, about being more intentional about how we use curbs to best support our goals. Businesses might be best supported by having readily available parking and pick-up/drop-off zones for customers. Congestion and safety could be improved by having commercial zones on residential streets for package delivery to reduce double parking.
Sometimes it is about reducing the amount of space devoted to vehicular use along the curb. During the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of curb spaces across the country were replaced with outdoor dining. “Some restaurants [in New York City] made more money in the pandemic summer of 2020 than they had in 2019—despite the absence of tourists and commuters.” And now a space that had been reserved for free car storage could be generating hundreds of dollars a day in sales tax for the city. And “Yelp reported a boost in consumer interest in restaurant strips that had blocked cars entirely.”
“What gives a Japanese street its particular, alluring affect is simple: there is no on-street parking.” (There is some but it’s very limited).
When curbs are used for parking they should be priced appropriately. As seen above, proper pricing makes the on-street parking market function efficiently, which in turn makes it easier to find parking, reduces traffic, and reduces illegal parking (and citations).
And the additional revenue can be used to further cities’ other goals. Howard Yaruss wrote an op-ed, pointing out that in the extreme, by charging $6/day for all curb spots in New York City, the city could raise as much as the entire transit system makes in fares. Thus the city could trade free parking for free transit furthering its sustainability and equity goals.
I’ll leave you with some of the closing words of the book: “The path forward from a policy perspective seemed clear. Abolish parking minimums and let developers build the amount of parking their clients want. Break garage rents apart from apartment rents so carless tenants don’t have to subsidize their neighbors’ driving. Recognize that more parking means less housing, especially affordable housing. Let different uses—an office and an apartment building, a school and a movie theater—share parking. Charge for the best street parking, and use parking prices and enforcement not to generate cash and cycles of punishment but to manage city streets. Invest the proceeds in the neighborhood. Let architects design environments where people can walk. Ask drivers to bear some of the externalities of automobile use. And turn some of that extra parking into something new."
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“The body of Christ compels you not to take my spot”
People have strong emotional feelings about parking. “Commuters often say quickly finding a parking spot is the difference between a good and a bad day.” And we become very possessive of “our” parking spaces, even if it’s a free space on public curbs. “Drivers take 21 percent longer to leave a spot if someone is waiting, as if their holding is suddenly worth more once someone else wants it, and that very desire enhances their sense of power and control. They wait 33 percent longer if the arriving driver honks.”
Chicago Dibs catalogs how Chicagoans lay claim to curb parking spaces after a snowstorm, sometimes comedically, and sometimes threateningly: “No Parking,” read one sign. “I did not spend several predawn hours and risk of cardiac infarction to shovel this space for you. If you are arrogant enough to park here, I hope you are the type of person who can afford a new set of tires.”
“When Boston tried to limit this spot-saving practice to the forty-eight hours after the snowfall, a city councilman protested: ‘The issue speaks to the basic principle of what it means to be an American. . . . Like the gold miner and pioneers, residents have a right to stake their claims.’”