We paved paradise

So why can't we find any place to park? Because parking is one of the biggest boondoggles -- and environmental disasters -- in our country.

Published October 1, 2007 12:42PM (EDT)

In Tippecanoe County, Ind., there are 250,000 more parking spaces than registered cars and trucks. That means that if every driver left home at the same time and parked at the local mini-marts, grocery stores, churches and schools, there would still be a quarter of a million empty spaces. The county's parking lots take up more than 1,000 football fields, covering more than two square miles, and that's not counting the driveways of homes or parking spots on the street. In a community of 155,000, there are 11 parking spaces for every family.

Bryan Pijanowski, a professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue University, which is located in Tippecanoe, documented the parking bounty in a study released this September. When it made the news, Pijanowski got puzzled reactions from locals. In short, they said: "Are you crazy? I can never find parking where I'm going!"

That's the paradox of parking. No matter how much land we pave for our idle cars, it always seems as if there isn't enough. That's America. We're all about speed and convenience. We don't want to walk more than two blocks, if that. So we remain wedded to our cars, responsible for "high CO2 emissions, urban sprawl, increased congestion and gas usage, and even hypertension and obesity," says Amelie Davis, a Purdue graduate student who worked on the study.

Despite all the environmental evils blamed on the car and its enablers -- General Motors, the Department of Transportation, Porsche, Robert Moses, suburban developers -- parking has slipped under the radar. Yet much of America's urban sprawl, its geography of nowhere, stems from the need to provide places for our cars to chill. In the past few years, a host of forward-looking city planners have introduced plans to combat the parking scourge. This year, some are making real progress.

Our story begins in the 1920s with the birth of a piece of esoteric regulation, the "minimum parking requirement." Before parking meters and residential parking permits, cities feared that they were running out of street parking. So municipalities began ordering businesses to provide parking and wrote zoning restrictions to ensure it. Columbus, Ohio, was first, requiring apartment buildings in 1923 to provide parking. In 1939, Fresno, Calif., decreed that hospitals and hotels must do the same. By the '50s, the parking trend exploded. In 1946, only 17 percent of cities had parking requirements. Five years later, 71 percent did.

Today, those regulations could fill a book, and do. The American Planning Association's compendium of regulations, "Parking Standards," numbers 181 pages. It lists the minimum parking requirements for everything from abattoirs to zoos. It is a city planner's bible.

To Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, parking requirements are a bane of the country. "Parking requirements create great harm: they subsidize cars, distort transportation choices, warp urban form, increase housing costs, burden low income households, debase urban design, damage the economy, and degrade the environment," he writes in his book, "The High Cost of Free Parking."

Americans don't object, because they aren't aware of the myriad costs of parking, which remain hidden. In large part, it's business owners, including commercial and residential landlords, who pay to provide parking places. They then pass on those costs to us in slightly higher prices for rent and every hamburger sold.

"Parking appears free because its cost is widely dispersed in slightly higher prices for everything else," explains Shoup. "Because we buy and use cars without thinking about the cost of parking, we congest traffic, waste fuel, and pollute the air more than we would if we each paid for our own parking. Everyone parks free at everyone else's expense, and we all enjoy our free parking, but our cars are choking our cities."

It's a self-perpetuating cycle. As parking lots proliferate, they decrease density and increase sprawl. In 1961, when the city of Oakland, Calif., started requiring apartments to have one parking space per apartment, housing costs per apartment increased by 18 percent, and urban density declined by 30 percent. It's a pattern that's spread across the country.

In cities, the parking lots themselves are black holes in the urban fabric, making city streets less walkable. One landscape architect compares them to "cavities" in the cityscape. Downtown Albuquerque, N.M., now devotes more land to parking than all other land uses combined. Half of downtown Buffalo, N.Y., is devoted to parking. And one study of Olympia, Wash., found that parking and driveways occupied twice as much land as the buildings that they served.

Patrick Siegman, a transportation planner, who is a principal with Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates in San Francisco, says Americans are gradually waking up to the downside of parking requirements -- at least in one way. "Americans love traditional American small towns, main streets and historic districts," he says. "But largely because of minimum parking requirements, it's completely illegal to build anything like that again in most American cities. It's really hard to build anything where anyone would want to walk from one building to the next."

Parking regulations vary locally, but a typical one in suburban communities requires four parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet of office space. Yet, typically, just over two spaces per 1,000 square feet are used. A classic restaurant parking regulation might require 20 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet of restaurant, which can mean more than five times the space for cars than for diners and chefs.

Wonder why the mall parking lot is half empty most of the time? Developers build parking lots to accommodate shoppers on the busiest shopping day of the year -- the day after Thanksgiving -- so that shoppers need never, ever park on the street. Similarly, the church parking lot is designed to accommodate Christmas and Easter services. So a whole lot of land gets paved over that doesn't have to be, transportation planners argue.

The environmental impacts of all this parking go way beyond paving paradise. The impervious surfaces of parking lots accumulate pollutants, according to Bernie Engel, a professor of agricultural engineering at Purdue. Along with dust and dirt, heavy metals in the air like mercury, copper and lead settle onto the lots' surfaces in a process called dry deposition. These particles come from all kinds of diffuse sources, such as industry smokestacks, automobiles and even home gas water heaters.

"If they were naturally settling on a tree or grass, they would wash off those and into the soil, and the soil would hold them in place, so they wouldn't get into the local stream, lake or river," Engel says.

But when the same substances settle on parking lots, rain washes them into streams, lakes and rivers. Engel calculates that the Tippecanoe land used for parking creates 1,000 times the heavy-metal runoff that it would if used for agriculture. Because the surface of the lots doesn't absorb water, it also creates 25 times the water runoff that agricultural land would, which can increase erosion in local waterways.

Parking lots also contribute to the "urban heat island effect." The steel, concrete and blacktops of buildings, roads and parking lots absorb solar heat during the day, making urban areas typically 2 to 5 degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. "This is most apparent at nighttime, when the surrounding area is cooler, and the urban area starts radiating all this heat from the urban structures," explains Dev Niyogi, an assistant professor at Purdue, who is the Indiana state climatologist.

The urban heat island effect can be so dramatic that it changes the weather. One Indianapolis study found that thunderstorms that reach the city often split in two, going around it, and merging again into one storm after the urban area. "The urban heat island is not simply a temperature issue. It could affect our water availability," says Niyogi.

In Tippecanoe, Pijanowski thinks the county could take steps to keep parking from eating up more land. With changes to zoning laws, a church and a school could share a parking lot, with the worshippers using it on the weekend, and the school kids and teachers parking in it during the week. "These new parking lots that are being built on the urban fringe are huge," says Pijanowski. "They're mega-lots that are servicing mega-buildings for big-box retailers and mega churches. Even our new schools in rural communities have huge parking lots. Having a parking space seems to be one of those amenities that you think is a good thing, but it probably isn't."

Still, there are few frustrations like driving around looking for a parking space, which has its own environmental impacts. Shoup studied a 15-block district in Los Angeles and found that drivers spent an average of 3.3 minutes looking for parking, driving about half a mile each. Over the course of a year, Shoup calculated the cruising in that small area would amount to 950,000 excess miles traveled, equal to 38 trips around the earth, wasting about 47,000 gallons of gas, and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide that contribute to global warming.

But if simply requiring businesses to build more parking isn't the answer, what is? Today there's a burgeoning movement among urban planners, transportation advocates and city officials to manage parking without blindly building more of it.

Some cities, like Seattle and Petaluma, Calif., are loosening or chucking their minimum parking requirements. Great Britain found that minimum parking requirements bred such bad land-use policies that the nation recently outlawed them entirely. It's a policy that has appeal for both sides of the aisle. "Liberals can love it because it does a huge amount on the affordability of housing, reducing traffic, improving the environment. And conservatives can love it because it's deregulation," says Siegman.

For his part, Shoup wants street parking to be priced at a market rate, so it can compete with lots and garages. Raising rates in the most congested areas will free up space curbside by inspiring thrifty drivers to park farther from their destinations, or -- heaven forefend! -- take the bus or train. To be politically feasible, he wants to see cities use the money raised by those increased fees to improve the city streets where they're collected, cleaning up graffiti or street cleaning, so shoppers and businesses can see the benefits of where that money is going.

Some cities are putting his theories to the test. In Redwood City, Calif., which boomed during the Gold rush by processing and shipping lumber to San Francisco, city planners are trying to revitalize the historic downtown by luring businesses and shoppers back from the far-flung malls and big-box stores. Yet adding parking spaces would mean adding parking garages, where capital costs can run $20,000 to $30,000 per parking space.

Recently, the city managed to subvert the parking code bible and add a 20-screen movie theater with 4,200 seats without adding more than a thousand parking spaces. Even before the cinema opened, on Friday and Saturday nights, drivers trying to go to restaurants and clubs circled the block searching for the elusive free street spaces, creating gridlock. Meanwhile, parking lots a few blocks away stood half empty. "We had plenty of parking," explains Dan Zack, downtown development coordinator for Redwood City. "What we had was a management problem, not a supply problem."

Transportation planners contend this is true in many urban areas, where street parking is free, and everyone is trying to grab a coveted space right in front of their destination. "You could add another 10,000 parking spaces to a place like downtown Redwood City, and it still wouldn't help you empty out the overfill on street spaces," says Siegman.

To prevent drivers from circling, Redwood City raised the prices of parking on the street from zero in the evening to 75 cents an hour on the main drag, and 50 cents and 25 cents in the surrounding streets until 8 p.m. Even farther from the center of the action, parking is still free on the street. Drivers searching for a good deal quickly caught on and went to the surrounding streets, cheaper parking lots and garages, which can be free with validation. Other cities, such as Ventura and Glendale, both in Southern California, are adopting similar schemes.

In Brooklyn, N.Y., transportation advocates are pushing for the city to consider doing the same. A survey by Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for bicyclists, walkers and public-transit users in New York City, found that 45 percent of drivers surveyed in Park Slope were just cruising looking for parking. And street parking was so overcrowded that one in six cars on the main drag, Seventh Avenue, was parked illegally. Only increases in the price of street parking can fix the problem, they contend.

"For the past 100 years, traffic engineers looked at problems like this, and said, 'Oh, the problem is that we don't have enough parking.' That's what got us into the nightmare that we have today," says Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives. "What we have to start doing is managing the demand for parking, and the way you manage demand is through pricing. The logic with parking for as long as anyone can remember has been supply-oriented. What that does is induce demand: The more roads you have, the more parking you have, the more cars you have." The hope is, of course, to create more incentive to bike, walk or take the bus, instead of driving.

But it's tough to convince drivers to accept that they might have to pay for something that they're used to thinking that they get for nothing, even if they're really paying for it in all kinds of invisible ways. Ever since their first game of Monopoly, Americans have been conditioned to think that parking is free. "I think that we've done things wrong for so long that it takes a while to break all our bad habits of wanting to be freeloaders," says Shoup. "We know that land is fabulously valuable and housing is expensive, but somehow we think we can park for free. We can't."

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environment Global Warming