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We Paved Paradise

We tend to think of parking as a problem only when a spot can’t be found. But city planners who’ve documented the hidden costs of parking are starting to implement solutions.

River, parking lot, Hudson valley
Parking lots cover an estimated 25,000 square miles in the US.
Photo: Flickr
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Parking is not an issue many people give much thought to—until they can’t find a place to park, an increasing problem in certain cities and towns in the region (one reason why many new development projects include building more parking spots). But you can’t write about forward-thinking development, especially in urban and suburban areas, and not tackle parking, which contributes to problems many people do spend a lot of time thinking about: affordable housing, climate change, economic development, public transportation, traffic, and urban design, to name a few.

The United States has been the world leader in building parking spaces. A 2011 study by the University of California estimated that the total inventory at the time was around 800 million—including on-street parking spaces, off-street surface parking lots, and off-street parking structures—covering about 25,000 square miles of land and costing billions of dollars per year in construction and maintenance, plus associated environmental costs like energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

A more recent study, published last year by Eric Scharnhorst of the Research Institute for Housing America, attempts to further quantify the spatial and financial costs of parking infrastructure. Scharnhorst inventoried all parking in five cities (New York, Philadelphia, Seattle, Des Moines, and Jackson, Wyoming) and developed metrics such as parking spaces per acre, parking spaces per household, and parking costs per household. One main takeaway: Cities of lower density pay more in environmental and replacement costs for parking. Jackson, Wyoming, which has a population of about 10,000 people and whose economy relies heavily on tourism, has more than 100,000 parking spaces, which altogether have an estimated value, or “replacement cost” (calculated by the median price of a square foot of land in the area), of $711 million. This at a time when driving is in decline.

That we view parking as a right in America is a symptom of a mid-century, car-centric urban design philosophy whose other legacies include urban renewal, suburbanization, and separated land use. We don’t often think of parking as symptomatic in the same way as, say, vacant buildings, and, thus, parking doesn’t seem like a policy issue. But demands for parking have been baked in to urban planning requirements, which causes cities to expand and costs to rise. As the parking expert and urban economist Donald Shoup notes for CityLab, the area of off-street parking per car is now larger than the area of housing per human in the US.

What’s more, building “free” parking lots drives up construction costs, which are often passed on to consumers. And while small, cookie-cutter apartments cost less to build than luxury units, their parking spaces don’t. Since most cities require the same number of spaces for every apartment regardless of its size or quality, the required parking disproportionately increases the cost of low-income housing, Shoup writes:

Parking requirements reduce the supply and increase the price of housing. Parking subsidies lure people into cars from public transportation, bicycles, or their own two feet. Cruising for curb parking congests roads, pollutes the air, and adds greenhouse gases. Do people really want a drive-in dystopia more than they want affordable housing, clean air, walkable neighborhoods, good urban design, and a sustainable planet?

But cities are starting to rethink their approach to parking as they prioritize walkable urban environments, mixed-use development, and increased density. Many are tweaking zoning requirements for certain amounts of parking for specific types of development, adjusting prices to discourage driving when other options are available, and even actively preventing new parking spaces from being built.

One of those places is Hudson, where in June the common council approved a zoning amendment to eliminate off-street parking requirements. As Hudson Valley 360 writes, Hudson’s code requires one parking space for every three seats at a restaurant or bar, and one parking space for every five seats at a movie or live theater. Planning Board chairman Walter Chatham told the paper that the number of parking spaces available far exceeds what’s necessary, a situation replicated in many municipalities: Supply exceeds demand by at least 45 percent in on-street, public off-street, and private off-street parking, as Mike Flynn, the director of city strategies for the transportation planning firm Sam Schwartz, noted in a recent presentation on cars in communities at SUNY New Paltz’s Benjamin Center.

Other local municipalities are caught betwixt and between on the parking issue. Take New Paltz, a town “caught between a push to design a more pedestrian-friendly community and a desire to make it easy for tourists to drive here, since their dollars are desired but there’s no convenient public transportation,” as Hudson Valley One writes.

The Village of New Paltz devoted most of an October board meeting to parking, where the problem of solving it was laid bare. Time limits on parking might be a necessity in a place where most people drive, but it also causes drivers to circle endlessly, creating more emissions and jeopardizing local businesses if they decide to just give up. But centralized parking, like a new garage, is not affordable in a community of that size. Short-term fixes would just reinforce auto-centric policies, and long-term and/or more high-tech solutions aren’t yet affordable or available.

In his 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking, urban economist Shoup identified three parking reforms cities can implement to improve livability, the economy, and the environment:

  • Remove off-street parking requirements. Developers and businesses can then decide how many parking spaces to provide for their customers.
  • Charge the right prices for on-street parking. The right prices are the lowest prices that will leave one or two open spaces on each block, so there will be no parking shortages. Prices will balance the demand and supply for on-street spaces.
  • Spend the parking revenue to improve public services on the metered streets. If everybody sees their meter money at work, the new public services can make demand-based prices for on-street parking politically popular.

These ideas leave it up to the market to determine the pricing and availability of parking—which is one reason why Shoup thinks they’re politically viable. He cites a few cities that have removed parking requirements, including Buffalo, Hartford, Minneapolis, and San Francisco, to positive effect. And he argues that each initiative reinforces the other two:

Spending the meter revenue to improve neighborhood public services can create the necessary political support to charge the right prices for curb parking. If cities charge the right prices for curb parking to produce one or two open spaces on every block, no one can say there is a shortage of on-street parking. If there is no shortage of on-street parking, cities can then remove their off-street parking requirements. Finally, removing off-street parking requirements will increase the demand for on-street parking, increasing the revenue to pay for public services.

Some of our local municipalities are on this track. But Hudson Valley One reporter Terence Ward summed it up perfectly: “Doubtless parking will continue to be an issue in the village, at least until cars are no longer encouraged for transportation in human society.”

Phillip Pantuso is the editor of The River, and has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Yes! Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @phillippantuso.