Cities face much criticism with how they handle their car population, but have you ever thought about how much land use is dedicated to surface parking lots? In fact, it may be one of the most prominent features of the postwar city in the United States. Housing, community facilities, highway infrastructure, often garner much attention, but the amount of land dedicated just to park cars is astounding.
There are 8 parking spots for every car in the United States and they cover more than 5% of all urban land- a size greater than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Even in Los Angeles, a city that struggles with its housing shortage, there are more parking spots than housing. While these statistics seem startling, the amount of parking that consumes our land can be hard to understand as it relates to things that we more often talk about when it comes to city planning. We all live in a home, so we frequently discuss affordable housing. Some of us might live in cities so we work to improve mass public transit systems. But how many times have you driven to a store and thought to yourself, “there’s too much parking!” Probably never, but you may have spent a small portion of time circling a parking lot for an open spot and thought “there’s not enough parking!” instead
In exploring why parking lots are such a major issue, it’s important to understand the ways that we attempt to squeeze density out of the land, and instead ignore the vast opportunities that could be gained by eliminating and redeveloping parking lots. The first issue is that our attempts to rezone certain areas from single to multi-family housing and industrial to residential parcels, etc., are often only taking into consideration areas that are already built up. What we need to do is take a closer look at the policies that have caused us to build too many parking lots and the codes that have resulted in massive swaths of land dedicated to cars adjacent to smaller areas dedicated to the actual building itself.
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After World War II, the United States experienced an explosion in suburban development and car ownership. To match the rate at which people purchased cars, the U.S. introduced minimum parking requirements, which included off-street lots. Nearly 70 years later, these mandates remain, even as we look to repurpose land and explore other methods of transit. At first, planners weren’t sure how to design codes for parking spots, so these standards were often created without data to support them. Many zoning regulations call for one parking space per residential unit, one per 300 SF of commercial development, and one per 100SF of restaurant space. The result of this is oftentimes a parking lot that is three times the size of the building it supports.
Des Moines, IA alone has 7.75 square miles of surface parking, the size of six central parks. This translates overall to 19.4 parking spots per household, which a study in 2012 concluded that nearly 35% of all parking was not used. Surface parking lots are a scorn on our cities. pic.twitter.com/L9rrcWLm8D— Hayden Clarkin (@the_transit_guy) January 27, 2022
Because of this, many people are beginning to reconsider the amount of land that we use to just temporarily store cars. One of these strategies is to redesign parking requirements around various conditions that are more market-driven and to align the number of spaces with the actual demand for them. When we prioritize cars, it limits the space we can allocate for housing, businesses, public amenities, and other facilities. It also increases construction costs, like in Los Angeles, where each parking space costs developers a minimum of $50,000.
Another aspect of city planning that forces us to be reliant on cars is the way that land use is separated. When housing is located in one area, commercial offices another, and amenities like schools and supermarkets in a different part of a city, it makes it hard for cities to be walkable. It also means that we need separate parking spaces for each one of those stops we need to make.
While we continue to speculate on the ideal future city, we need to remember to design spaces and allocate land for people, not cars.