Does America Have Too Much Parking?
Cities are lowering or doing away with longstanding requirements to provide spaces.
WSJ (“America Has Too Much Parking. Really.“):
For decades, American cities have had a parking problem: too much of it.
Countless residential parking spots go unused, and many downtown garages sit half empty. Ride-sharing and the rise of remote work during the pandemic have aggravated the trend. The average American drove 4% fewer miles in 2022 than in 2019, according to government statistics.
Recognizing this, cities are shrinking the number of spaces, freeing up the land for other uses, with far-reaching consequences.
Garages and parking lots are being demolished. New buildings now come with fewer spots. Major retailers are leasing unused spaces for new development. And local governments are scrapping decades-old minimum-parking rules for new buildings.
Urban planners and economists say this helps to reduce construction costs, hold down rents, relieve congestion, revitalize cities and mitigate the national housing shortage by making better use of some of the country’s most valuable land.
“The Dutch have reclaimed land from the sea, and I think we can reclaim land from parking,” said Donald Shoup, an urban planner at the University of California, Los Angeles who pioneered the field of parking research.
Any driver who has been late to an appointment for lack of a parking spot might be surprised to hear there is a parking glut. Economists, however, say expectations for inexpensive or free on-street parking create the appearance of scarcity when in fact spots often are plentiful nearby. Drivers prefer to circle the block looking for government-provided curbside parking rather than paying more in a privately owned garage. That adds to congestion.
There’s a whole lot more but that’s the gist of the argument.
With the exception of a throwaway anecdote at the very end of the piece, it’s all written from the perspective of developers. Not including parking spaces in retail developments, apartment complexes, and the like is quite lucrative, maximizing the amount of space that can be allocated to profit-making. It’s also true that, if you don’t own a car, you’re effectively subsidizing those who do. Each apartment’s rent is increased a bit to cover the cost of providing parking rather than building additional units.
Yet, the piece essentially ignores the obvious: there’s a reason these zoning requirements exist. Apartment complexes, retail shops, restaurants, and the like all generate a need for parking. If your business doesn’t provide spots, you’re essentially free-riding on other businesses that do.
Indeed, some of the assumptions in the WSJ report strike me as bizarre.
Three years ago, the Charlotte, N.C., city council granted a rezoning request to Grubb Properties, a local developer, to build a 104-unit apartment close to downtown with no resident parking at all.
That enabled it to build about 25% more units than would have been possible had the building included parking, said Clay Grubb, the company’s chief executive. Fitting in more units means rents will be about $250 lower than they otherwise would have been, he said.
The building, which is set to open next year, will feature bicycle storage areas. It sits along a greenway close to downtown, and Mr. Grubb expects many residents will bike to work.
Mr. Grubb contrasted the Charlotte development with a 405-unit apartment project in Aurora, Colo., where city rules require him to build 485 spaces even though he estimates residents will only need 390. “That is a complete waste of money,” he said.
Building those extra spots, which subtracts from the space available for apartments, he said, will add more than $100 to the average rent. The building sits next to a major hospital complex and not far from public transit. Mr. Grubb expects many of his future tenants to be hospital employees who will find it quicker to walk to work than to drive.
So, let’s assume for the sake of argument that the vast majority of people who move into an apartment complex work within walking or biking distance. (I’m highly skeptical of that, as dual-income couples will seldom work in the same place, people change jobs with more frequency than they change residences, etc.) There are only a handful of walkable cities in America and Charlotte is not one of them. Which means that, for the vast majority of errands and other non-work excursions, the residents will still depend on their cars. People don’t make Costco runs on their bicycles.
Beyond that, there are multiple references in the piece to the fact that parking lots are seldom full. Why, there are more parking spots in the United States than there are cars! But that’s hardly surprising. By their very nature, cars are mobile. There has to be flex to account for that fact.
As I type, my car is in my garage. But, several times a week, it spends several hours at my workplace. And, by the laws of physics, that means the spot in my garage is vacant! And, after hours, very few spots at work are occupied. It’s a waste of space! Restaurants tend to be full around meal times and are more crowded some days of the week than others. But, to the extent they want to accommodate peak hours, that means that there will be times when there are many empty spaces. Why, they may well all be vacant at three in the morning.
The assumption seems to be that there should simply be an abundance of parking garages rather than expecting people who run other businesses to also be in the parking business. But that’s incredibly inconvenient outside center cities—-where that’s already the practice.
Now, part of this is simply a function of suburbanites and urban dwellers having different experiences and expectations. Almost by definition, those of us who live in suburban areas depend on our cars to get around. It would simply be unthinkable for suburban shops, restaurants, office buildings, and the like not to provide free and convenient parking. By contrast, there’s never enough convenient parking in the center city.
Still, even most major American cities are essentially suburban in the sense we’re talking about here. Only very old cities like New York (#1), Chicago (#3), Philadelphia (#6), DC (#23), and Boston (#24) are more or less livable without a car. There, you can easily get around by foot or public transit. Even our second-largest city, Los Angeles, is famously car-centric. Certainly, Houston (#4), Phoenix (#5), San Antonio (#7), and Dallas (#9) are.
Assuming this is true, it seems that this is a way of allocating costs more fairly: if you don’t have a car, you’re off cheaper; if you do, you pay (someone else) a fair price and don’t have your car-less neighbors subsidize your car use.
Capitalism and free-market efficiency, baby.
The thing is, parking is never truly free. Somebody has to pay for the land and the upkeep. And land dedicated to parking cannot be used for other purposes, driving up the costs of something else.
Often, we tend not to notice when the haves (in this case: car owners) receive free subsidies.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the people who demand free parking are the same ones who bitch about food stamps and the like.
We literally walked to Costco yesterday with our “granny cart” and picked up a few things. It’s 1-1/2 miles for us each way.
Living in the city means not taking the car out very much. Our 2-year-old car has 5,300 miles on it, 1200 of which are from when we moved between states after selling our 2nd home.
In our city, San Diego, they are removing street parking and adding bicycle lanes in order to encourage walking, bicycling, and public transportation. You can imagine what the local NextDoor response has been, but we have the weather and geography to be less car-centric.
Cars are noisy, and dangerous, and otherwise awful. Anything we can do to reduce their usage is a good thing. But we need locally-palatable solutions, because there is no one-size-fits-all for this one.
@drj: Again, maybe because I’ve lived my whole life in what amounts to suburbia (even when I lived in Houston and El Paso, the communities were suburb-like), it just seems bizarre not to be able to park where you live. And, rather obviously, the cost of the parking—whether in the apartment building or at some retail or office space—is priced in.
Exactly. Where I live in the city if a row house comes with a parking space it carries a premium in price. You can actually get a monthly space in one of the nearby hotels, office towers, or high rise apartments for maybe half the the price differential, although you might have to walk for 5 minutes to get to your space. And if you can get to work walking, biking, taking the metro or taking the light rail, you can avoid the car and save thousands of dollars a year. Bottom line you save at least a couple hundred a week on not having the parking space, and $5-15,000 a year in not having the car.
@James Joyner: Well, I’m pretty sure that a free standing house build in 2023 that didn’t have an attached garage wouldn’t fly, and a surburban apartment building without parking spaces would also be a non-starter, since it’s very likely nothing would be in walking distance and even if there were a few things a pedestrian could they would no doubt have to cross the hellish and pedestrian hostile surburban busy streets filled with pedestrian oblivious drivers.
So I think that once again the free market works pretty nicely.
What appears bizarre to you is, in fact, economically fairer to those who cannot or do not drive – or, at the very least, increases consumer choice. Don’t want to park in front of/next to your house? You can save some money!
In a small way, this shows how we are conditioned to think of certain things as normal (and how certain external costs remain hidden), even if these things aren’t necessarily fair or equitable.
@MarkedMan: That should be “a couple of hundred a month” for a row house with a parking space. Say a savings of $2500 to $3500 per year.
Slightly off topic, but our municipal ordinances require any business with more that 8 parking spaces to designate one as handicapped and space and stripe it accordingly. As a small professional office, we have 10 private spaces reserved for the lawyers many of whom have to come and go to court or closings over the course of the day. None of us are handicapped. None of our staff is handicapped (and we would certainly let a qualified staff member use it). So, but for the occasional client need, the spot necessarily stands empty and often forces an employee onto the limited on-the-street parking. I am supportive of the goal of this ordinance, but the application here seems excessive.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or what but just today I found this on the subreddit r/MapPorn.
The parent site is pretty interesting too.
The siterunners definitely agree America has too much parking.
I’ve live in suburban/urban in Norfolk. I could literally walk across the who city, though one did want to avoid the housing project on the other side. I could walk to work. In good weather, walk to a distant neighborhood that had restaurants. But again, careful at night as although it was a gentrified residential neighborhood it could be a mugger paradise at night. The homeless generally left you alone. But if I wanted food, I needed a car even to get to the small urban grocery past the restaurants. I went to a large suburban story in Virginia Beach for variety and better pricing. I certainly would not have lived “in the city” had I not had assigned parking. I would have lived 20 miles out on the other side of the river and commuted in.
Even in Honolulu, good weather, I could walk to the federal building. But when I worked on Sand Island, I needed a car to get to and from work. Had I not had parking, I would not have lived where I did. And that doubled when I would work on the other side of Pearl Harbor.
Or Atlanta, imagine trying to do anything in Atlanta, other than downtown, without a car. And none of this involves recreation.
There is likely to be lots more parking in cities soon enough as people avoid them like they did in the 1970s. Most cities had lots of vacant lots that could easily be made parking lots to offset the taxes in the 1980s. And this goes double if the downtown has been renewed as a restaurant/entertainment area.
I’ve lived in a few cities, few of them would be defined as ‘walkable.” Houston, however, was particularly awful for pedestrianism. The downtown, at least when I lived there 10 years ago (I imagine it’s been longer for you) just did not have many residents to speak of. Almost everyone lived in the suburbs or a suburb-like community. Houston may be skewing your perspective a bit on how much a pedestrian lifestyle is possible in even car-centric cities.
Heck, my view of its walkability is probably outdated by now too. When I lived there, priority lanes for buses and park-and-ride stops and just been expanded. Light rail and bike infrastructure construction had just been started, but was mostly orange barrels and large pits.
To that point though, after a decade+ of many cities building up bicycle, pedestrian and mass transit infrastructure, many car-centric cities have pretty large swaths of urban areas where one could live a car-less or almost car-less lifestyle. I couldn’t get a sense of the scale of just how much parking is being discarded across America, but if we are talking about an apartment building here or there in well chosen dense neighborhoods, I can’t imagine this will be much of an issue.
And if it is a disaster, I think the lesson will be learned pretty quickly.
In my experience, people who live in apartments don’t need to go to Costco. Not a lot of space for 150 rolls of toilet paper.
This nothing but a way for the developers to privatize the gain and publicize the pain.
What happens in the “real” world? Those apartment dwellers without spaces to park will park in adjacent neighborhood’s thus using public streets as for their parking, while the developers pocket the profits of not having to build these spaces. The pain is that once quiet neighborhoods which have heretofore plenty of street parking is now inundated with these new users. It clearly does not work. Developers have cleverly used the do gooder liberal social planners as unwitting dupes in their plans.
Proof? Just look at Los Angeles whose developer/liberal complex has adopted TOD developments for a decade now.
The result? Use of public transportation has dropped every year since its adoption and the above nightmare of once quiet streets are now full of cars – each resident’s reduced utility a direct result of the developer’ manipulation of the left elitist’s hatred of automobiles.
I am all for increased use of public transportation. Make it free as the vast majority of its users are lower income, by taxing the developers for every space they DON’T build.
James is spot on. In the vast majority of cities a car is essential. These libertarian leaning traffic Nannie’s should practice what they preach.
I attended a TOD/bike lane public hearing and NONE of the politicians, professors and backers came by bike. They all DROVE to the meeting!!!! I stood watch at those arriving with video camera in hand to document the sheer irony and hubris of these hypocrites.
When I visit Vegas, I get a bus pass and walk or take the bus most places. Sometimes the people I meet have a car and give me a lift. A few times I’ve taken a cab.
It is a lot of walking, which seems no ideal in the Spring in the middle of the desert. But one learns to get inside some casinos for the A/C here and there (you can advance almosta whole block inside the Flamingo). But that’s in the Strip. Downtown distances are shorter and entirely walkable.
That’s tourist areas. Locals may not have it that good. I’ve gone to a few locals areas using the bus system. Far fewer buses run, and some areas lack even sidewalks. Outside the tourist areas, it’s mostly a car town.
@The Q: Thank you for your near-perfect impersonation of the NextDoor guy I was referring to.
Parking requirements are almost entirely driven by zoning and other regulations. In the suburban area where I live, there are layered regulations from homeowner associations up through state law. In my particular neighborhood, which is well established with no new lots, houses have to have an attached 2 or 3-car garage. If my house burned down and I had to rebuild, I would have no choice but to have a 2 or 3-car garage.
So there is not a free market for this. But even if there were, most people who don’t live in dense urban areas will want parking where they live. And dense urban areas that rely on people commuting from outside the city will need to provide parking for workers – either in the city itself, or in large outlaying lots served by reliable public transport.
A hidden benefit of limited parking: A Times article this AM on the trump arraignment and the potential for protests/violence, a trump supporter was quoted as saying that he didn’t expect large protests in NYC due to tolls and lack of parking.
@Kathy: I don’t know that tourist or business traveler experiences equate to living in a place. If I’m in town for less than a week, just about anywhere, I’ll park the car and either walk or Uber. I’m not buying groceries, much less other household items. I’m eating out every meal. I don’t know that that’s sustainable for years on end unless you’re really rich.
Too much parking or not enough? Both depending on the jurisdiction, it’s not zero sum. But the question reflects our typically American, myopic focus on downstream results instead of upstream problem-solving.
Actually, America has too few trains and not enough investment in high quality, efficient, affordable public transportation.
Too much law enforcement or not enough? We have have too much poverty and not enough investment in early childhood education, paid family leave, universal healthcare inclusive of mental healthcare, and other poverty-reducing policies that result in less crime.
Too many guns or not enough? Ship has sailed on gun proliferation in the US, that genie is out of the bottle. Armed teachers in Tennesee couldn’t save kids and colleagues from death, we do not need more ‘good guyd with guns.’ So maybe we could stop twisting the 2nd Amendment’s meaning and intent + try universal background checks, universal permitting/titling with renewals, mandatory insurance, waiting periods, health requirements, compulsory training, and restrictions on high capacity magazines.
We could maybe start chipping away at some problems if we started at the root and not the endgame. But since Muricans gonna Muricans — at least till the woke kids take over — I won’t hold my breath waiting.
There’s an important thing to remember about Southern US cities: since the civil rights era they have been deliberately designed to require a car to travel from one segment to another. Take a look at a map of Atlanta. Those highways were deliberately placed to knock down as many black homes as possible, and to segregate what remained. (As a side effect, they rendered their downtown a ghost town.) When I lived there in the 90’s they were building to accommodate the Olympics, and realized that the way the city was walled off from area to area made it impossible to get anywhere without a car or boarding a bus even if the distance was technically walkable, and the city simply couldn’t contain the traffic required for the Olympic sized crowds. There were dozens of different sports venues and hundreds of hotels scattered all over the city. They were furiously tacking on pedestrian over and under passes and widening and beautifying sidewalks. I left before the games started so I don’t know whether this post-hoc design-for-walkability sprint had an effect.
This contrasts greatly from older cities. Here in my Baltimore neighborhood, even though we have two cars we walk to almost everything within a 2-3 mile radius. Light grocery shopping, restaurants, out to the pub to watch a ball game, museums, plays, concerts, movies, all are walkable for a reasonably fit person (except in the hottest months).
@DK: Got bad news on that “woke kids” thing. Back in the day, the
later (I would guess 4 years and beyond) segmentthe boomers were the woke kids. As the theme song from American Dreams expressed it “we’re gonna show that we can live in love/we’re gonna make a world to be proud of.”
As I say to my students, we failed. Spectacularly. But go forth, grasshopper. I wish for you
whatthe world I wasn’t able to have.
Luxembourg, the richest country in the world, per capita, has an entirely free public transportation system throughout the country to ensure that those who have less can get to where they need without challenges.
We kinda suck.
Before smartphones and Waze/Maps, I’d park at the hotel and take cabs to move around on business trips. If I flew in, I’d naturally also take cabs everywhere. I’ve done this in Monterrey, Hermosillo, Puebla, and even Houston* once.
Later I did use navigation apps to get where I needed to go, to the detriment of cab drivers (I tip very well).
There are buses that make the run of the Strip and Downtown Vegas. Really they run from the big outlet mall in the North, to the big outlet mall in the South. the route passes through the Downtown hotel area, with stops at plenty of Strip hotels.
I can tell a bit of how the locals have it. According to the bus schedule, I could have taken a bus to the atomic Testing Museum. I tried. I waited 20 minutes at the bus stop, alone, then decided I’d get there faster walking (I did).
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
And as I say to my 26 year old daughter who frequently goes off on the boomer generation: We made great strides on civil rights, pollution, environment, and giving everyone access to leaning and information (internet and web), and fairly significant progress on a host of other things like child poverty. But, yes, we only got so far on all those and didn’t get enough done in absolutely crucial areas. Now it’s your generation’s turn to change the world. What are you waiting for?
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
Meh. Aside from bare minimum opposition to blacks being firehosed and murdered by the KKK for voting, Boomers were never really *that* woke. Hippie self-aggrandizement does not count. Free love was ultimately self-focused. That’s not the same thing as loving others. When it came time for the rubber to meet the road, a majority of youth voters in the 80s turned their backs on Jimmy Carter’s woke liberal Christianity (and solar panels) and instead voted for Reagan’s racist dog whistling and tax cuts for the rich — and as a group they’ve been padding their own bank accounts by selfishly mortgaging their kids’ future ever since.
So there’s never been a youth cohort as liberal or as hostile to conservativism as today’s kids. Boomers never came close, percentagewise. And we fully intend to go forth and do what y’all didn’t — which is match our votes with our rhetoric and self-image. It’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk.
But for the limited progress that was accomplished, thanks.
@Liberal Capitalist: Luxembourg is smaller than Rhode Island and has half the population of the county I live in. It’s not a useful comparison for a continental superpower.
I can’t wait to see the fighting for EV charging stations in major cities once all-electric vehicles are mandated. Question: Will they accept credit cards or cash only? What about those in crime-heavy neighborhoods? Will a quarter get you an hour’s charge? Inquiring minds are curious as hell.
Indeed we did and have. Kinda my point. During the firehosing and such my brother*–5 years older than me–was in his teens, so I’ma cut him (and me) some slack beyond the amount I give us living in a John Birch/William Buckley “coloreds are too stupid to have sufferage” household. And I include the features you mention when I give them my best advice–make the world what you want it to be and then sell out for the money. We definitely got that backwards. I hope the woke kids of the new millennium do better. My money, tho, is on human nature winning again.
ETA: And yes, I AM cynical about “the basic goodness of humanity.”
*My brother who volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight the Commies.
@John430: So far, charging stations that aren’t free, take only credit/debit cards. I checked once.
Your welcome! And I am heartened for my old age knowing that the much smarter ubermensch have at long last arrived and will fix everything right up!
Thanks for the snarky, elitist condescension that proves my point of how out of touch libertarian social planners are from reality.
No mention of the empirical facts of LA’s failed concept of more transit riders after instituting reduced parking and TOD over development, instead a banal, hackneyed “get off my lawn” reference.
But then because of neo lefties like you, our country is sliding into the abyss of ignorant, right wing fascism as your views are easily ridiculed by the MAGA anti woke demagoguery.
I think I read once that America has 8 parking spots for every car. I didn’t check the math but there being many multiples of spots per car makes sense when you think about the temporary nature of their usage. The problem isn’t the number, it is the distribution. That is complicated by human behavior. I don’t know what the solution is but whatever it is, the goal should be to focus as much of the costs of car ownership onto car owners.
An interesting exercise. Fire up google maps satellite view, go the centre of many American cities, and look how much of the area is taken up by parking. Now go to any big European city, including those flattened during WW2, and note the much higher density.
It’s just a completely different approach.
Even those that tried to become car-centric after 1945 have tended to turn away from it in the past few decades.