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How Parking Ruined Everything



When you’re driving around and around the same block and seething because there’s nowhere to put your car, any suggestion that the United States devotes too much acreage to parking might seem preposterous. But consider this: In a typical year, the country builds more three-car garages than one-bedroom apartments. Even the densest cities reserve a great deal of street space to store private vehicles. And local laws across the country require house and apartment builders to provide off-street parking, regardless of whether residents need it. Step back to assess the result, as the Slate staff writer Henry Grabar does in his lively new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, and it’s sobering: “More square footage is dedicated to parking each car than to housing each person.”

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That Americans like driving is hardly news, but Grabar, who takes his title from a Joni Mitchell song, says he isn’t quibbling with cars; his complaint is about parking—or, more to the point, about everything we have sacrificed for it. All those 9-foot-by-18-foot rectangles of asphalt haven’t only damaged the environment or doomed once-cherished architectural styles; the demand for more parking has also impeded the crucial social goal of housing affordability. This misplaced priority has put the country in a bind. For decades, even as rents spiraled and climate change worsened, the ubiquity and banality of parking spaces discouraged anyone from noticing their social impact.

Parking was once the stuff of sweeping urban visions. In the decades before World War II, as car ownership surged in the U.S., drivers in downtown urban areas simply parked curbside—or double- or triple-parked—leaving streetcar operators and fellow drivers to navigate around their vacant vehicles. Local notables saw this obstacle course as one more threat to cities that were beginning to lose businesses and middle-class residents to the growing suburbs. The Vienna-born architect Victor Gruen, best known as the father of the shopping mall, came up with a solution: Preserve urban vitality by making more room for vehicle storage—a lot more room. In 1956, at the invitation of a top business leader in Fort Worth, Texas, he proposed a pedestrian-only downtown surrounded by a freeway loop and served by massive new parking garages. He wanted to shoehorn so many additional parking spaces into the urban core—60,000 in all—that visitors would never have to walk more than two and a half minutes back to their car.

In hindsight, his idea was bonkers. “Gruen was telling downtown Fort Worth to build more parking than downtown Los Angeles, a city seven times its size,” Grabar writes, and “in a city that, with its wide, cattle-friendly streets, was already an easy place to drive.” Yet at the time, not even Jane Jacobs—the now-sainted author of the urbanist bible The Death and Life of Great American Cities—appreciated the dangers lurking in plans like Gruen’s. Grabar notes that in a “fan letter” (her term) to Gruen, Jacobs gushed that the Fort Worth plan would bring back “downtowns for the people.”

It didn’t. Gruen’s proposal was never executed; Texas legislators rejected a necessary bill. Yet Gruen had validated the postwar belief that cities had a parking shortage they desperately needed to fix. The result was an asphalt kudzu that has strangled other parts of civic and economic life. Over the years, cities and towns have demolished grand old structures to make way for garages and surface parking. When you see vintage photos of most American downtowns, what’s striking is how densely built they once were—before the relentless pursuit of parking helped hollow them out.


As early as the 1920s and ’30s, some local governments had sought to cure their nascent parking problem by making private developers build off-street spaces. Architects adapted: In Los Angeles, Grabar explains, a distinctive apartment-building style called the dingbat—with eight or so units perched on poles over a common driveway—arose after 1934, when the city started requiring one parking space per new apartment. Those rules proliferated in the postwar years. They also became more demanding, and acquired a pseudoscientific precision: Detroit, for example, requires one off-street space per 400 square feet of a museum or an ice rink, one per 200 square feet of a bank or laundromat, and one per 100 square feet of a beauty shop. The rules vary from city to city, frequently in arbitrary ways, but they change the landscape everywhere. An off-street parking spot, plus the room necessary for a car to maneuver in and out of it, requires more than 300 square feet—which, by one estimate, is about two-thirds the size of a typical new studio apartment. On lively main streets that predate parking regulations, shops and restaurants abut one another, but today’s rules produce little islands of commerce surrounded by seas of blacktop.

The opportunity cost of building new spaces quickly became evident. When Los Angeles upped its parking requirement from one to 1.5 spaces for a two-bedroom apartment in 1964, Grabar notes, even the car-friendly dingbat building became infeasible. Off-street-parking mandates, it turns out, are easy to satisfy when suburban developers are building fast-food outlets, strip malls, and single-family homes on cheap open land; meanwhile, large downtown commercial and residential buildings can generate enough revenue to pay for expensive garages. But projects in between fall into what’s been described as the “Valley of High Parking Requirements”: The government-mandated number of spaces won’t fit on a standard surface lot, and structured parking would cost too much to build. This is how parking rules killed off the construction of rowhouses, triple-deckers, and other small apartment buildings. Grabar reports that in the past half century, the production of new buildings with two to four units dropped by more than 90 percent.

Many housing experts believe that the waning supply of cheap market-rate apartments in small and midsize buildings is a major cause of the current housing crisis. Since 1950, the U.S. population has grown by more than 180 million people, at least some of whom—to judge by real-estate prices in New York’s Greenwich Village, Boston’s South End, and other former bohemian enclaves—would happily move to dense neighborhoods with lousy parking if they could. But many residential and commercial parts of cities that look like, well, cities cannot legally be replicated today. “If the Empire State Building had been built to the minimum parking requirements of a contemporary American city … its surface parking lot would cover twelve square blocks,” Grabar writes.

Precisely because parking mandates discourage apartments without banning them, local governments can make unrealistically high demands—two parking spaces for a studio, six for a four-bedroom apartment—as a way of excluding renters and preserving neighborhood homogeneity. For NIMBY homeowners, parking rules have become an all-purpose tool for preventing change in any form, no matter how seemingly innocuous. Grabar describes the plight of Ben Lee, a Los Angeles entrepreneur who wanted to turn his father’s carpet store into a New York–style delicatessen. Local regulations required so many parking spaces—roughly three times the square footage of the deli itself—that Lee would have had to buy and raze three nearby buildings. He tried a work-around: The mall garage across the street always had plenty of unused spots, so Lee arranged to rent a few dozen of them. “Unfortunately,” Grabar writes, “getting a parking variance in Los Angeles is, like trying to make it in Hollywood, a long and degrading process with little chance of success.”

Although the city did ultimately approve Lee’s plan, a homeowner group sued on the grounds that Lee didn’t have clear title to the parking he planned to use. “It took another two years for Lee to prove his legal right to those empty parking spaces in the mall garage,” Grabar continues, “by which time he was down $100,000 and no longer on speaking terms with his father, who couldn’t believe his son had gotten them into this mess.” Lee gave up—a victim of curmudgeonly neighbors, yes, but also of rules insisting on new spaces even amid a glut of parking.


Something about parking reveals a glitch in our mental programming. A driver might well realize in the abstract that too much pavement, besides making downtowns less vibrant and more barren, also leads to pollution, aggravates flooding, and soaks up too much heat from the summer sun. Yet when Americans presume that parking on demand is almost a civil right, the default assumption will be the more supply, the better—whether it’s necessary or not. And the collective downsides simply don’t register in comparison with the personal joy of finding a parking spot when you’re running late—or with the frustration of being denied one. In what may be Hollywood’s most famous parking scene, in the 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, Kathy Bates sits in a car, waiting to park outside a Winn-Dixie, when a younger driver in a red Volkswagen convertible steals her spot. She responds by stepping on the gas and crashing into the VW. Then she backs up and does it three more times. The maneuver, mind you, signals that she’s taking charge of her life.

If America’s long misadventure with parking has a hero, it’s a once-obscure UCLA urban-planning professor named Donald Shoup. In a 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, he revealed vehicle storage for what it was: not anyone’s birthright or an inexorable landscape feature, but a highly subsidized activity with profound social consequences. Shoup called for ending minimum-parking requirements and letting the market decide how many spaces private developers should build. Making the real-world costs of parking more transparent would benefit everyone, including motorists, he contended. And if cities simply charged for street spots according to market demand, drivers would relinquish them faster, freeing them up for use by others. Although parking meters date back to the 1930s, cities have been oddly coy about deploying them. Surprisingly few streetside spaces are metered—just 5 percent in New York and Miami, 3.4 percent in Boston and Chicago, and 0.5 percent in Dallas and Houston—and the hourly rates, which local governments are reluctant to raise, are almost invariably lower than in nearby garages.

For many people who had never given the issue of parking a second thought, listening to Shoup was like acquiring secret knowledge of how the world really worked. His ideas have deeply penetrated the precincts of those who write books, articles, and tweets about housing and transportation policy. Indeed, Paved Paradise itself is a translation of Shoupism for a broader audience.

Under Shoup’s influence, San Francisco began adjusting parking-meter rates according to demand. (During a pilot phase from 2011 to 2013, rates that started at $2 an hour rose to $3.50 on popular streets and fell to $1 on others; with more spots opening up, the time that drivers spent looking for one fell by nearly half.) City after city began reducing or even eliminating parking requirements for new development. (Blessedly, Austin, Texas, may soon abolish mandatory-parking rules for bars.) A new generation of reformers is pushing housing developers to unbundle parking charges from rents, on the theory that tenants who don’t have cars shouldn’t have to pay for their storage—and that some drivers might give up their vehicle to save a couple hundred bucks a month in rent.

Yet when local governments try to raise parking-meter rates, many critics see a money grab, not a street-management strategy. Some proposals to abolish parking mandates have been assailed from the left as a giveaway to developers. For conservatives, parking reform makes for strange politics. Lifting parking mandates does have a distinctly libertarian vibe—“Let me build my apartment building the way I want to, and if people don’t want to live here because there’s no parking, well, that’s my problem,” one Sun Belt developer tells Grabar. Yet to some on the populist right, technocratic reforms that reduce fossil-fuel emissions and challenge Americans’ driving habits look like a cultural affront.

Here an optimist would interject that, right now, some of the country’s largest cities and their densest inner suburbs have no choice but to renegotiate the relationship among people, cars, and parking spaces. The pandemic-fueled movement toward remote and hybrid work will affect how often people commute. Vacant commercial towers and underused office parks might have a second life as dense housing. The shift toward electric cars—which are easy to charge if you have a garage but not if you rely on street parking—might nudge more city dwellers to give up their vehicles entirely. The biggest variable is whether habits will change once vehicles can drive themselves; if, instead of buying, driving, and parking their own cars, Americans decide they’d rather rely on robot vehicles (cheaper than human-operated Ubers or taxis) to ferry them around, they might not guard parking spaces so jealously.


But technology alone won’t solve the current mess. People need to recognize that the rules have to change. If ideological divisions lead to a vigorous public debate about the way parking in the United States works, and doesn’t, great—that’s overdue. Parking’s triumph over the city in the 20th century was so complete that, in the 21st, even a modest shift in the opposite direction could liberate a lot of space from cars.

Toward the end of Paved Paradise, in a chapter titled “How Americans Wound Up Living in the Garage,” Grabar follows housing activists’ efforts to legalize in-law apartments carved from single-family houses, in many cases from the garage. The mere fact of this movement epitomizes the underlying problem: Local regulations have blocked apartments while allowing parking structures because, for most of seven or eight decades, city planners got hung up on the wrong issue. The visionaries of Victor Gruen’s day simply failed to foresee how the relentless promotion of parking spaces might enervate cities and crowd out other needs. Some of the most consequential social problems are the ones hiding in plain sight, but parking isn’t even hiding. It’s just everywhere.

This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “How Parking Ruined Everything.”

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Source: The Atlantic


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