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A parking lot sparsely filled with cars, seen from high above.
There are at least four parking spaces for every car in the United States, meaning that the parking stock is never more than 25 percent full at any given time.
Andrii Chagovets/iStock/Getty Images

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The hidden force that shapes everything around us: Parking

It’s fueling the affordable housing crisis, worsening flooding, and driving us nuts.

Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

Most Americans, especially those living outside of major cities, need to drive to get around, and so the need to put one’s car somewhere when we’re not using it — ideally somewhere safe, free, and convenient — is a quiet force that often dominates how we get around. But how parking works (or doesn’t work) is something we rarely stop to consider.

Henry Grabar, a staff writer at Slate, has done a lot of thinking about the issue. In his new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, Grabar demonstrates in a fascinating way how parking shapes our lives in the United States, determining the kinds of homes we live in, the communities we build, and how we interact with our built environments. He shows how zoning requirements requiring off-street parking for new construction strangle new development and help fuel the affordable housing crisis. Finally, he offers a series of solutions to make our cities more affordable and livable — and to keep parking from driving us all mad.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why does parking make us so crazy?

That is the million-dollar question. I think there are a few reasons that parking makes people really upset, but perhaps the most obvious is that in almost every place in this country, it is obligatory to have a car, and there is almost nothing that you can do without a car. So to the extent that you are able to hold down a job or go to a restaurant or pick your kids up from school, you have to drive, and parking becomes the link between driving and whatever else you want to do with your life. And so naturally, there’s a great deal of importance placed on having a good parking space.

That’s the first thing. And then the second one is that we have just catastrophically mismanaged the way we provide parking in this country, in a way that actually doesn’t make things better for people who are driving and parking. Parking is not shared, and it’s not properly priced. We have acquiesced to the idea that parking on city streets has to be a total free-for-all.

As you point out in the book, you’re not just talking about this symbolically. People have actually died over arguments about parking spots.

Oh yeah, all the time. When I started working on this book, I set up a Google alert for “parking space murder.” So that’s been how I’ve been keeping track of this. I’m really excited to turn that Google alert off now that the reporting is done. The first person to be killed in New York City this year was actually killed over a parking space. I estimate that it happens several dozen times a year in US cities.

How did you get interested in parking?

In my work as a reporter, I was writing about cities, and it seemed like every topic that I would come across had this hidden component to it that was determinative in the result of whatever was being discussed, and that issue was parking. When I went to Houston to report on Hurricane Harvey, I talked to a guy whose house had flooded for the first time, and he was saying that his house never used to flood and he was blaming it on an enormous parking lot that had been constructed and the displacement of water falling on that parking lot, and how that was contributing to the stormwater issue in his neighborhood. And this is a widespread issue in Houston — the city’s brand of sprawling, auto-centric development does involve paving over a ton of land. That’s just an example.

Parking is really expensive, and the obligation to provide parking can break projects that would otherwise succeed. Mass transit, the ability to create bus rapid transit lanes, or even to create bike lanes is dependent on being willing to reallocate the street parking supply.

When you think about its spatial impact, well, cars spend 95 percent of their time parked. Parking literally takes up more room than the roads, and it costs more than the automobiles. But many of us don’t think much about parking at all, or if we do, it’s an afterthought.

Is the problem that we have too little parking or too much?

I will give you an annoying answer: It depends. On a national level, certainly, there’s far more parking than we need. There are at least four parking spaces for every car, meaning that the parking stock is no more than 25 percent full at any given time. And some of those cars are moving at any given time, so parking may be a good deal emptier than that.

Of course, there are places where people get frustrated because there isn’t enough parking. So if what you’re interested in is having a free place to park, you could look at this situation and say, well, there isn’t enough parking. In fact, that’s sort of what we did as a country: We decided, at some point in the middle of the 20th century, that there wasn’t enough parking, that this was at the root of our traffic problem, and we had to create more parking. But you can only do so at great expense, and at a tremendous cost to the urban fabric. There may be places where there isn’t enough parking, but the solution is rarely to create more parking, but rather to more intelligently manage the parking that we have and try and find ways to control demand for parking by, for example, sharing it, pricing it, and telling people where it is.

What does that look like?

When somebody decides they want to open a new restaurant or open a new building, instead of saying it needs X number of spaces, we could say, let’s look at the parking stock and find accommodations that are already there. Office parking could be used at night for residential parking. That dentist’s office parking lot could become the parking lot for a restaurant.

The other part is pricing. If you institute a parking fee, you’ll find out exactly how many people are willing to pay to park there. If you keep raising prices until you always have spots available, you’ll find out exactly how high it needs to be to create a few open spots on every block. Because it might seem like it only takes you a couple of minutes to find a spot for free, but the net effect is thousands of miles of driving every day across the United States. There’s an unbelievable amount of driving being done just looking for parking spaces. You can look up a restaurant and look at exactly how to get there, but finding good parking is dependent on local knowledge. If you want to park downtown, you should be able to know it’s going to cost this much, and you can do it here — that should be made clear at every highway exit to downtown. But it’s not.

Is the implication that parking is going to have to get more annoying in places where everyone wants to park, like busy urban commercial areas?

I don’t think it should be more annoying. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea that you have to hunt for parking that it’s hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea that it will be easier. Yes, you’re going to have to pay for it, but no, you don’t have to stress anymore because you’ll know there’ll be a parking spot where you want it. That’s a new concept, but in the places where it’s been instituted, people seem to have found it agreeable. There is a way, even without eliminating any parking, that a little bit of management can make a smoother parking experience for everyone. Time is money, and circling around the block and not knowing when you can find a spot, or leaving 20 minutes early to find a spot to park, that’s a cost as well.

How does parking affect our housing supply?

There are two principal ways that parking affects the housing supply. The first is that many jurisdictions in this country have parking requirements for new housing. That places a geometric and financial constraint on the types of things that can be built. And then what gets built contains a lot of parking, and the cost of that parking is folded into the cost of the units, whether they’re being sold or rented. And this is a pretty significant cost. In California and Arizona, it adds tens of thousands of dollars onto the cost of every new low-income housing unit. It’s folded into the rent or the asking price, whether you drive a car or not.

Parking functions as a third rail in neighborhood politics. The public parking supply is such a fixation that people oppose new projects, especially projects that don’t have “enough” parking, on the grounds that they’ll threaten that public parking supply, whereas if I were to say, “I don’t want poor people living in the neighborhood,” that would be considered unacceptable. I cite this survey in the book of baby boomers, and more than half of baby boomers say that free parking is more important than affordable housing in their neighborhood.

How did we mess this up so bad?

I think that parking requirements were done with the best of intentions. At its roots, it was really thought that it would solve the traffic problems in congested neighborhoods that were caused, [mid-century urban planners] thought, by not having enough parking. This was the situation in American cities in the 1940s and ’50s: It was just unbelievable traffic jams, which city planners concluded were caused by the fact that there wasn’t enough parking. So lots and lots of parking was provided. The thing that they probably couldn’t have anticipated was just how thoroughly it would remake the urban environment, and how expensive it would be, and the extent to which it would begin to constrain the types of housing we could build.

What more recent research proves is that the more parking you provide, the more people will drive, and parking is perhaps the greatest determinant of whether people decide to make a trip in a car or by some other means. So providing more parking does not actually make it easier to park. If parking actually encourages people to drive, then more parking is actually going to create more traffic, not soak up the traffic of people looking for parking.

Some places have gotten rid of parking minimums, or requirements that new construction have a certain number of parking spots, in the last few years. I’m curious if you can talk a little bit about what the results have been in those communities.

There’s been a ton of movement on this in the last five years. It’s kind of amazing, dozens of cities deciding that they no longer want to require people to build a certain amount of parking corresponding to land use. One of the best examples is in Seattle, where in 2012 they decided to stop requiring parking for new apartment buildings around transit. This was right at a period when residential construction in Seattle was booming. And they approved 60,000 units between 2012 and 2017. Most of them still have parking — I mean, developers know people who move into their buildings want space to park their cars — but they built 40 percent less parking than would have been required under the old regime. And that meant they built 18,000 fewer parking spaces, and the amount of money saved from that, which we can assume went into cheaper apartments and lower rent, was $540 million: half a billion dollars saved just by not building quite so many parking spaces.

What else can we do?

If you could imagine a paradigm in which parking was a little less important, and we needed a little less of it, you can do so much with the land that we have currently reserved for parking lots. The more spectacular opportunity is with curb parking in cities, where we’ve got some of the most valuable real estate on earth, and that is really crucial in shaping people’s perception and understanding and enjoyment of the places they live in. You saw this during Covid, with the [outdoor] restaurant pop-ups; to even have 12 people outside sitting and having coffee on the street is just tremendous. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, right?

You could imagine a world in which streets were pedestrianized and where we planted trees and gardens and in what is currently space reserved for parking, and closed streets, outside schools, so kids can have places to play. I think all those things are within reach. Those aren’t even particularly expensive or ambitious ideas. They just depend on 25 car owners saying, all right, we’ll give up our rights to this little strip of land. The changes to parking on surrounding streets would probably be pretty marginal, if you consider 25 cars in neighborhood parking stock that’s probably in the thousands.

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