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How To Fix Our Parking Problems
Erica Barnett, 4 Oct 07

Roadbuilding unleashes a chain of detrimental effects on the natural world. Cars produce greenhouse-gas emissions; roads produce sprawl; sprawl necessitates more cars; more cars need more roads; the cycle continues.

What's been less fully explored is the effect of building parking for all those cars. Or, more accurately, building surplus parking. According to a surprising new study out of Purdue University, parking spaces "in a midsize Midwestern county" (Tippecanoe) actually outnumbered cars three to one. Because the study did not count every floor in multi-level parking garages, the actual number was probably higher, with those excess spots including oversized suburban lots in front of strip malls, driveways and residential carports; and parking garages to serve large office parks.

All told, there were eleven times more parking spaces in Tippecanoe than there were families -- taking up space equivalent to more than 1,000 football fields.

Why do Americans have so many parking lots? One reason is we're lazy: people don't like to walk very far, so businesses overcompensate by providing excess parking. (The sight of cars circling suburban parking lots to find a space just a few feet closer to the entrance is a common one at suburban strip malls across America.) For another, parking seems to drivers like a limitless good, because they're largely insulated from its cost: in many suburban areas and small towns, parking is free, and even in urban areas, the dollar per hour it may cost to park is far from the true cost of construction and maintenance. So because parking appears to cost next to nothing, people use it freely, without regard to the social, economic, and environmental impacts of building a parking garage instead of, say, a storefront.

And those costs are troubling. Parking lots collect pollutants -- including heavy metals -- on their impervious surfaces. When it rains, those pollutants combine with stormwater to create polluted runoff, contaminating groundwater, streams and other water bodies, and water supplies. Moreover, parking lots contribute to the urban heat island effect, in which large, horizontal surfaces (like parking lots) reflect more heat back into the immediate atmosphere, making some urban neighborhoods two to three degrees Celsius hotter than surrounding areas. Parking lots also lead to bad land use policies: replacing storefronts with lots or garages leads to "dead zones" along the street, and plentiful parking encourages car-oriented development, roads, and sprawl.

One policy shift that could immediately cut back on the excess of built parking would be getting rid of minimum parking requirements, which are currently mandated to a wide range of land uses across America -- everything from condominium developments to diet clinics to wastewater treatment facilities. The Institute of Transportation Engineers' manual for determining parking requirements contains assumptions about how much parking is necessary that are generous, to say the least: two parking spaces per employee at daycares and preschools; three spaces per thousand square feet for food stores, financial institutions, and government and private business buildings; eight per thousand square feet for restaurants.

Some cities, including San Francisco and Seattle, have already reduced or eliminated minimum parking requirements in certain parts of their urban cores. Last year, Seattle eliminated or lessened the off-street parking requirements for businesses, and reduced some residential parking requirements as well. San Francisco not only eliminated parking minimums for downtown housing, it established maximums, and required that parking be sold separately from residential units so that those who don't want parking spaces don't have to pay for them. San Francisco also instituted land-use policies that bar garages at street level unless they include sidewalk-facing retail storefronts; limited the size of garage doors; and mandated one space for carsharing vehicles per every 200 residential units.

Another move that cities could make that would have an immediate impact on demand for parking is to make parking prices reflect the true cost of this amenity. According to a 1998 study by the American Planning Association [PDF], demand for parking went down by 23 percent when employees had to pay for parking (as opposed to having it provided by employers at no charge). Some call this social engineering. However, since the true cost of parking is almost never reflected in what cities charge (except in places like the Richmond suburb of London, which charges for parking based on emissions), the real "social engineering" is subsidizing cars -- through parking minimums and free or reduced-price parking.

Image: flickr/zummersweet

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Comments

Given the current car based system, having more parking spaces than cars is only logical. If there were equal numbers, then there would only be one place to park one's car. If there is only one place to park a car, then you would never drive your car - therefore defeating the purpose of owning a car.

But back to the point - eliminating/limiting parking requires other transit options.

That said - I do often see lots that are never full and mixed use development solves a lot of the problem because the parking is used by workers during the day and residents during the evening.

Or do what google does and cover your parking lots with PV panels? I know, I know... not really a solution.


Posted by: bill on 4 Oct 07

This raises two thoughts for me. One is what are the impacts of having people circling for parking? Is the amount of CO2 produced by circling for spots less or greater than the damage done by the space itself?

The other thought is that the curse of parking is really more of a symptom than a disease itself. Parking is a side effect of our enslavement to cars. In Europe where cars aren't even owned by many, it's very possible to get where you need to go without a vehicle. In most of the U.S., if you don't have a car you're unlikely to be able to support yourself and live a full life.

The only way out of that trap that I can see is to make cars much more expensive. And that's hard to sell when you're already a slave to the machine.

Learning more about Sustainable Living at MovingLikeWater.com


Posted by: Nicholas on 4 Oct 07

The really funny thing will be if/when self-driving cars come in... The parking requirements will massively shift, probably within the space of a few years (call it a decade) from their introduction.

Of course, whether it'll be greener on the balance or not is another question. Self-driving will benefit both private and shared cars.


Posted by: sabik on 5 Oct 07

With regards to the construction of parking lots, we can reduce the heat island effect and storm water runoff issues by utilizing permeable concrete. This technology is well suited for large paved areas.

In lieu of paving with PV panels, (the cars would block the panels anyway) I would like to see more structured parking garages with the top level covered in PV panels. These could be linked to multiple charge stations in the structure for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Charge your vehicles during the day while you are at work instead of with coal fired electricity at home after the sun has gone down. The structured parking also reduces the sprawling oceans of on grade parking lots.

Changing society is a little more difficult. LEED (the green building rating system set up by the USGBC) has a credit for parking capacity in their Sustainable Sites design category. This point is achieved by sizing parking capacity to meet, but not exceed the minimum local zoning requirements AND provide preferred parking for carpools or vanpools. Not the solution, but it's a start.


Posted by: Travis on 5 Oct 07

With regards to the construction of parking lots, we can reduce the heat island effect and storm water runoff issues by utilizing permeable concrete. This technology is well suited for large paved areas.

In lieu of paving with PV panels, (the cars would block the panels anyway) I would like to see more structured parking garages with the top level covered in PV panels. These could be linked to multiple charge stations in the structure for plug-in hybrid vehicles. Charge your vehicles during the day while you are at work instead of with coal fired electricity at home after the sun has gone down. The structured parking also reduces the sprawling oceans of on grade parking lots.

Changing society is a little more difficult. LEED (the green building rating system set up by the USGBC) has a credit for parking capacity in their Sustainable Sites design category. This point is achieved by sizing parking capacity to meet, but not exceed the minimum local zoning requirements AND provide preferred parking for carpools or vanpools. Not the solution, but it's a start.


Posted by: Travis on 5 Oct 07



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