Parking Problems

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

They paved paradise

And put up a parking lot

-Joni Mitchell

Perhaps the most virulent aspect of cars, is the fact that we need to park them. And we park them a lot. The average car sits for 95% of its existence. We park them out our homes, our places of employment, our retail centers, etc. Unfortunately, all of this parking has caused a lot of damage. It has cratered our cities, increased inequities, damaged the environment and driven up the costs of housing, shopping and transportation, among other ills. This article looks briefly at the origin and scale of our parking problems.

Before cars became the preferred means of transportation, cities were tightly knit centers. Buildings stood side by side and streets were generally narrow. Job centers weren’t far from housing, which wasn’t far from retail.Transportation as a whole didn’t require a lot of space.

Boston_Ian Howard Attribution
Historic street in Boston. Credit: Ian Howard

Cars changed that. They changed it partly because, unlike walking or taking a trolley, we need to park a car when we aren’t traveling. As cars became more popular and more affordable toward the beginning of the 20th century, the pressure on cities mounted. These compact cities were ill-equipped to handle large volumes of idle vehicles.

Traffic clogged street in West Virginia_Russell Lee
Traffic clogged street in Welch, West Virginia (1946). Credit: Russell Lee

To solve the problem, planners employed a host of horrific policies. Jane Jacobs compared the policies to the now defunct medical practice of bloodletting and Donald Shoup compared them to lead therapy. The policies somewhat varied by city but two of the worst policies were off-street parking minimums and urban renewal. Shoup provides a thorough account of these policies in his tome The High Cost of Free Parking.

The result of these policies, and the popular assumption that parking is a public good that should be free, is that we built parking with abandon. Suburban shopping centers and office parks are surrounded by seas of parking. In downtown’s, old buildings, many of historical and architectural import, were torn down to accommodate parking for new developments.

To provide a sense of scale, America’s population has more than tripled in the past century. Car ownership has grown roughly 50 fold in that same period. There are nearly as many cars in this country as there are people, including children. Parking has grown faster yet. Parking has grown so fast, in fact, that experts estimate we have between 4 and 8 parking spaces per car, which is between 1 billion and 2 billion parking spaces in America alone. If 1 billion parking space were built side-by-side, that parking would cover the entire state of Connecticut.

Parking Lot-Connecticut

Thanks to the work of Donald Shoup, and others, many cities are reforming the parking policies that created this problem. These cities are enjoying a renaissance as a result, even if the progress is somewhat slow. Driverless cars, however, present an opportunity to make a far faster and bigger dent in the parking challenges we face.

Additional Resources:

Mother Jones: No Parking Here

Access Magazine: Parking Infrastructure and the Environment

University of Texas at Austin: Operations of a Shared Autonomous Vehicle Fleet for the Austin, Texas Market

Donald Shoup: The High Cost of Free Parking

Nelson/Nygaard: Autonomous Vehicles and the Future of Parking