Parking is Boring. And That's the Point.
For the handful of us who’ve read (and proselytize for) Donald Shoup’s 733-page tome on parking, the subject of parking is fascinating. He even has a fan group on Facebook (some of us may need to get a life). For the rest of humanity, parking is boring. And that’s exactly why understanding it is so important. Because parking, in excess, creates places that are boring.
Like sewers or electric lines, parking is infrastructure. And most of us take infrastructure for granted. Revitalized downtowns get the interest of a wide audience, but parking is just another utility that’s necessary for that downtown to function. For that reason, even people who spend a great deal of time thinking about cities have usually, until the last decade or so, given little thought to parking.
Sewers and electric lines can safely be ignored, at least as long as they serve their intended functions. But people interested in revitalizing cities cannot ignore parking. It simply takes up too much space. In most places in the US, parking defines our built environment. Ultra-convenient, free parking is the dominant factor that defines what we build. For example, it rules the typical commercial landscape - think of the large expanses of mostly-empty lots common to most of our suburban strips. For those driving past in a car, these lots are a blur from Point A to Point B, an expected feature of that environment.
When this omnipresent parking is brought to the most walkable parts of our towns and cities, without sufficient concern for its impact, it becomes catastrophic. Because the issue is that parking lots are boring—especially for those on foot. As pedestrians, we move at about three miles per hour and are intimately connected to our environments. Bustling storefronts, lively public spaces, outdoor seating, and other signs of human life make us want to keep walking. And empty parking lots make us want to turn around.
Anyone who knows Downtown Dallas, for example, knows that the pockets of vibrancy are not the parking lots, but are the areas where parking is most difficult. Now here’s the catch: If there were no parking anywhere, there would be no vibrancy anywhere. Most people wouldn’t be able to get Downtown, and it would die. But the only way to get enough parking to make everyone happy would be to tear down so many of those buildings that the experience (and economic value) would be ruined. There would be many places to park, but few reasons to do so.
So how do we address this?
First, we understand the tradeoffs we need to make:
Build too much parking, and the human experience of your neighborhood will be compromised.
Build too little parking, and your neighborhood will not function as a utilitarian entity.
So the foundation to understand that not every building in a walkable town or neighborhood can have “enough” of its own parking. These places do need parking, of course; not everyone can walk, bike, or rideshare to these buildings. But if people are unwilling to circle the block from time to time, or park a few blocks away, we might as well just bulldoze our old downtowns and urban neighborhoods. It’s that simple.
As that 1984 Pretenders classic reminds us, such a statement is not hyperbole; we have a long and storied history of reducing cities to parking lots. Importantly, this is not exclusively due to an American love of the automobile or the functioning of the free market. To the contrary, an extensive web of generally-arbitrary minimum parking standards blankets almost every non-rural neighborhood in the United States. These laws create enormous unintended harm to our walkable communities.
The first step? Let the free market do its job, at least in our most walkable areas. Currently, cities and towns typically force developers to build suburban-appropriate numbers of parking spaces in places that are far from suburban. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy; if cities mandate so much parking, they make it illegal to build the types of places where anyone would want to walk (and lose the value such places generate). Similarly, cities usually limit even the best types of development in walkable places, due to concerns about parking.
Community members often show up at public meetings to support these laws and restrictions. While it’s understandable that people want ample parking for themselves and their guests, the unintended consequences of these regulations are dire. So it’s important that city staff and elected officials hear the other perspective: Too much parking gets in the way of creating great places.
Once that foundation is in place, the priority should be making sure each space counts. A typical parking stall requires 300-350 square feet of land (including the parking stall itself and the drive aisles). When that space is used only during retail hours, or by a single company, or if it’s hardly used at all — that is a tremendous wasted opportunity. The best policies include encouraging shared parking, allowing developers to pay a fee for a shared garage instead of parking on site, incentivizing employers to support carpools and other alternatives, and supporting such amenities as car sharing and improved transit amenities. While parking can be a complicated topic, the fundamental principle is simple: Less is not always more.