In sprawling American cities, between 30-50% of developed land is devoted to the automobile, incentivizing citizens to use their cars as their primary mode of transportation and requiring a parking space at both ends of the journey . 1 Drivers expect those parking spaces to be cheap—or free—and to be conveniently close to the final destination, an expectation resulting in myriad lots per square mile. The edges of parking lots lead to dead zones on city blocks, effectively deactivating a public space. Hazard is introduced by curb cuts in sidewalks, putting pedestrians and their pets on an inevitable crash course with vehicles entering off-street parking lots. Finally, ample cheap parking encourages driving, causing congestion in our urban cores with thousands of drivers cruising slowly on the hunt for parking. The result of decades of this shortsighted development strategy is that cities are subservient to blankets of unsustainable land use: parking lots.
Cheap parking is deceptively expensive. Ignoring the value and opportunity cost of the land, the cost to build parking ranges from relatively inexpensive at $4000 for an off-street surface parking space to $40,000 for an underground space . 2 To recoup the costs of providing parking, owners would be required to charge exorbitant rates, well beyond what the public is used to paying. Instead the cost is factored into the price of products and services, requiring all to pay, whether they use the parking lot or not. The cost to build on-street metered parking is even greater, as the cost to build and maintain roads must be included. On-street parking is underpriced, leaving taxpayers subsidize the difference, as much $324 billion, or 3.6% of GDP–only slightly less than national defense . 3 Subsidizing masks the problem of underpriced parking, leading to expectations of ample, cheap parking.
A pedestrian is killed by an automobile every two hours . 4 This would seem to have little to do with parking, as cars sitting still are substantially less hazardous than their moving counterparts. However, in many cities there are multiple off-street lots per block, necessitating curb cuts for access, creating a hazardous mix of pedestrians and vehicles. The curb cut proliferation began in the first half of the 20th century with “municipal parking lots [becoming] one of the most dominant features of Downtown America by 1940” . 5 The process of carving up downtown sidewalks continued through the century, as Jeff Speck explains in Walkable City, “In the interest of driver convenience, most American cities handed out curb cuts in the seventies like candy at Halloween, to banks, restaurants, dry cleaners, hotels … anyone who asked” . 6 The result of too much candy is, unsurprisingly, decay in the vitality of street life due to insecurity in pedestrians being pit against adversaries well beyond their weight class.
Ubiquitous parking leads to congestion in cities. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood Village, the average driver spends 3.3 minutes (or 0.5 miles) in search of a cheap curbside parking spot . 7 Studies show that during peak hours as many as seventy-four percent of cars in downtown areas are cruising for parking, causing congestion both by slowly “trolling” for parking as well as “side friction” caused by curbside parkers entering and exiting spaces . 8 Worse, vehicles may come to a complete stop while waiting for others to exit curbside parking. The aggregate values of Westwood Village cruising are astonishing, adding 3,633 vehicle-miles travelled (VMT) per day and 945,00 VMT in a year–in Westwood Village alone . 9 The external impacts of cruising delays buses, increases noise pollution with inevitable honking, and in extreme scenarios leads to instances of road rage.
Parking lots create dead zones in communities with their long edges adjacent to sidewalks offering nothing of interest to pedestrians. Allocating this space for uses that activate communities (e.g. housing, schools, shopping, cafes, cultural institutions, parks) will help alleviate the housing shortage experienced by cities in our post-recession economy, as well as create desirable, lively, walkable communities. The United States has over three parking spaces per registered vehicle, differing in size depending on the intended use: standard, compact, disabled, and van .10,11 A standard parking stall is eight-and-a-half feet wide by eighteen feet deep, resulting in an area of 153 square feet. In 2013, 76.4 percent of the workforce—roughly 96 million people—drove to work alone, the area to park their cars (stall, access and turning lanes) required one-thousand square miles of space, the land area of the state of Rhode Island .12 Alarmingly, the ratio of registered cars to parking spaces in the United States is 3.1:1, resulting in 800 million parking spaces, the land area of Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut combined .13,14 Parking lots, while necessary in lesser amounts, are an excessive, wasteful use of land when built at the current required ratio.
A city synonymous with sprawl, and a microcosm to cities dealing with decades of automobile incentivisation, Los Angeles has the worst traffic in the United States. Angelenos spend 81 hours a year in their cars, which has led to being included among the ten most polluted cities in the nation .15,16 Nearly every parking statistic cited herein is met or exceeded in the County of Los Angeles. Mikhail Chester found in a 2015 study that Los Angeles County currently has 18.6 parking spaces, 3.3 for every registered vehicle .17 Spatially, that is 1000 square feet per car. Aggregately, parking consumes two-hundred square miles, five percent of Los Angeles County’s total land area. Los Angeles is in the throes of a housing crisis leading to unattainable rent and home prices. To give land to the storage of idle automobiles before addressing housing for tens of thousands of Angelenos is misguided at best, and arrogant at worst.
As society reaches peak-automobile, ideas are being enacted to reduce dependence on cars, instead returning cities to the people that inhabit them. Solutions include presently deployable strategies like rewriting the zoning code, incentivizing public transportation, and market rate dynamic parking costs. Near-future strategies primarily revolve around autonomous vehicles, and related technologies obviating the need for car ownership.
Without changes to zoning, all other strategies are moot, as noted in The Smart Growth Manual “The first step is to implement policy acknowledging that suburban-level parking requirements undermine urbanity” .18 Draconian zoning laws stipulating minimum parking requirements should be eased to right-size our current parking surplus, especially along transit corridors. In addition to their spatial requirements, current parking minimums add astounding project costs—$40,000 per underground parking space—which are passed on to the consumer in hidden costs of goods, services and rent. Locations of lots need to reconsidered and regulated so they cease chopping up our sidewalks. To return streets to pedestrians, all surface lots should be mid-block, hidden behind buildings and accessible through alleys. Mid-block parking keeps pedestrian-car interaction to a minimum, increasing safety while providing the opportunity for a vibrant street life, as sidewalks are faced with shops, cafes and other points of interest, instead of the edge of a parking lot.
If zoning changes are made with the goal of lowering the reliance on the automobile, cities must provide alternatives. Multi-modal transportation is a strategy overflowing with positive, sustainable effects. Public transportation allows vehicles to move larger densities of the population, especially when compared to the single occupancy commute taken by the majority of Americans. Bikes are great for short trips, with the added benefit of promoting a healthy lifestyle. A deliberately planned bike infrastructure is paramount for keeping cyclists safe. Alternative modes of transportation will work only if well-planned and incentivized, while ending incentives for automobiles. Transit orient development should be encouraged through density bonuses and other ordinances. In lieu of offering parking, building owners can attract tenants with transit passes. Getting people out of their cars and to their destinations using alternative modes of transit will greatly reduce the necessity for oversized parking lots.
Current parking rates do not reflect the costs incurred in building and maintaining spaces, necessitating a subsidy; drivers pay too little for parking. To discourage driving, the number of parking spaces should be reduced and the rates should be dynamic, reflecting current market value. Higher costs at peak congestion times leads to fewer cars, thus easing traffic .19 A robust sensor network with devices embedded in individual parking spaces can relay data reflecting real-time parking capacity. To reduce cruising, these data can also be accessed by mobile applications guiding drivers to the locations of available parking. Removing drivers from the road for the 3.3 minutes usually spent cruising for spots will help to relieve congestion. In 2010, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency launched SFpark, it’s pilot program implementing dynamic parking rates in association with a sensor network, publishing an evaluation summary four years later. The study found many improvements: parking availability improved, it is easier to find a parking space, it is easier to pay and avoid parking citations, greenhouse gas emissions decreased, and vehicle miles traveled decreased. Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the study is that average parking rates were actually lower .20
The most sustainable future for cities is to decrease dependence on the automobile. Providing adequate transit alternatives lessens the need for vehicle ownership, while ridesharing services and the inevitable autonomous car may obviate the need entirely. After dropping its passengers curbside, autonomous cars can self-park in offsite lots when not in use. When lots are designed only for sensor-laden cars with doors that need not open, the square footage needed is substantially lessened. Instead of parking, perhaps cars are put to use transporting others, creating a passive income for owners. With computers preconfiguring optimized routes, one shared autonomous vehicle can do the work of nine current cars, relieving both congestion and parking demand by a factor or eight .21
Technological solutions come with their own share of friction. Services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to obviate car ownership, but they currently operate in a largely unregulated sector with an unknown legal future. When cities (e.g. Austin, Texas) have proposed regulations which the ride sharing companies opposed, they simply pulled out of the city. Such actions do not inspire confidence in people considering rideshare as an alternative to car ownership. Federal and local governments should work with representative of ride-sharing corporations (and vice-versa) to insure a future of ride-sharing is available to all denizens of cities by enacting proactive (instead of reactive) policy.
Land is a precious and finite resource. It is not sustainable to continue the growth pattern that built parking lots across large swaths of available land area in US cities. If population growths and current parking requirements were to remain constant, a parking lot would blanket the entire City of Los Angeles by the end of the 21st century. To stem this tide, zoning regulations must cease their current reinforcement of automobile-centered development. Concurrently it is imperative to incentivize alternative modes of transit, while actively discourage people from driving. Finally, embracing new and emerging technologies like Internet of Things connected sensor networks and autonomous vehicles will greatly reduce the populations need to own a car. Officials from the private and public sectors need to work together to create the framework for the adoption of new transportation modes. The reduction of the amount of land dedicated to parking requires an orchestration between multiple factors, all with the intention of reducing people’s dependence on the automobile.
1Eran Ben-Joseph, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, 1st ed., 1st Ptg edition (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012), 14.
2Eran Ben-Joseph, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, 1st ed., 1st Ptg edition (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012), 17.
3Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, Updated Edition, Updated edition (Chicago: APA Planners Press, 2011), 207.
4National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2015, February). Pedestrians: 2013 data. (Tra c Safety Facts. Report No. DOT HS 812 124). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 1.
5Eran Ben-Joseph, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, 1st ed., 1st Ptg edition (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2012), 62.
6Jeff Speck, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Reprint edition (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 182.
7Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, Updated Edition, Updated edition (Chicago: APA Planners Press, 2011), 351.
8Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, Updated Edition, Updated edition (Chicago: APA Planners Press, 2011), 358.
9Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, Updated Edition, Updated edition (Chicago: APA Planners Press, 2011), 357.
10Michael Kimmelman, “Taking Parking Lots Seriously, as Public Spaces,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/arts/design/taking-parking-lots-seriously-as-public-spaces.html.
11Statista, “Number of Cars in U.S. 2014,” Statista, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.statista.com/statistics/183505/number-of-vehicles-in-the-united-states-since-1990/.
12Brian McKenzie, “Who Drives to Work? Commuting by Automobile in the United States: 2013,” accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.census.gov/library/publications/2015/acs/acs-32.html, 1.
13Michael Kimmelman, “Taking Parking Lots Seriously, as Public Spaces,” The New York Times, January 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/arts/design/taking-parking-lots-seriously-as-public-spaces.html.
14Statista, “U.S.: Number of Full-Time Workers in August 2016,” Statista, accessed September 11, 2016, http://www.statista.com/statistics/192361/unadjusted-monthly-number-of-full-time-employees-in-the-us/.
15Laura Nelson, “Los Angeles Area Can Claim the Worst Traffic in America. Again,” Latimes.com, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-la-worst-traffic-20160314-story.html.
16American Lung Association, “2016 ‘State of the Air’ Report Finds More than Half of Americans Live with Unhealthful Levels of Air Pollution,” American Lung Association, accessed September 13, 2016, http://www.lung.org/about-us/media/press-releases/2016-state-of-the-air.html.
17Mikhail Chester et al., “Parking Infrastructure: A Constraint on or Opportunity for Urban Redevelopment? A Study of Los Angeles County Parking Supply and Growth,” Journal of the American Planning Association 81, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 268–86, doi:10.1080/01944363.2015.1092879, 274.
18Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Mike Lydon, The Smart Growth Manual, 1 edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2009), 136.
19Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking, Updated Edition, Updated edition (Chicago: APA Planners Press, 2011), 305.
20San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. (2015, June). SFpark: Pilot Project Evaluation Summary). San Francisco: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, 12-13.
21Daniel J. Fagnant, Kara M. Kockelman, and Prateek Bansal, “Operations of a Shared Autonomous Vehicle Fleet for the Austin, Texas Market,” Transportation Research Record, no. No. 2536 (2015): 15.