PARK(ing) Day 2011

On Friday activists and artists will be celebrating PARK(ing) Day in hundreds of cities around the world.

Begun in San Francisco six years ago the aim of the annual event is “to temporarily transform metered parking spaces into “‘PARK(ing)’ spaces: temporary public places.” Organizers generally add benches or fake grass to pieces of public property usually taken up by a private car. Some are more adventurous, filling spots with ping-pong tables, basketball hoops or even a knitted garden in a PARK.

Incredibly, PARK(ing) Day participants often find themselves contravening the law, even when they fill the meter. In many cities only a motorized vehicle is allowed to occupy a parking space unless the city has granted a special permit.

PARK(ing) Day successfully draws attention to a topic that receives little in the way of social commentary. Beyond the seemingly endless quest for an empty spot, parking is rarely discussed, yet it shapes urban environments. Parked 95 percent of the time, personal cars require a huge amount of storage space and whether on the exurban fringe or downtown, parking blight is a plague upon the land.

“Perhaps nothing has made American cities less memorable,” write John Jakle and Keith Sculle in Lots of Parking. “Parking lots have eaten away cities in the United States like moths devouring a lace wedding gown,” chimes in Mark Childs.

History reinforces his vivid imagery. In the first half of the century, many charming centers were stripped of their character as historic buildings were razed to make way for surface parking. In 1910, for instance, Detroit’s Cadillac Square met its end and became a giant parking lot.  “All across the United States,” write Jakle and Sculle, “especially in county seat towns with court house squares, public space was systematically diverted to parking, thus eroding traditional open space in favor of auto storage.”

No great city has an abundance of parking. At least, that was the conclusion of Better Neighborhoods, a study by the San Francisco planning department, which described places like Joe DiMaggio’s childhood neighborhood of North Beach as a dying breed:

If we had to rebuild a place like North Beach under today’s [government imposed] parking requirements, as much as a third of the space where people live would be given up for parking. We would lose much of the street-life — the shops and cafes, the vendors and the stoops — that make areas like North Beach vibrant and interesting. We don’t build places like these today because we require so much parking. There are plenty of examples of the kinds of buildings our parking requirements result in. We just need to imagine a city composed entirely of these buildings, and ask ourselves if this is the kind of city we want in the future.

Contrary to orthodox planning, great streets do well without “enough” parking. In the vibrant central district of Carmel, California for instance, off-street parking is prohibited. Similarly, Boston, New York and San Francisco limit parking downtown (though they require it everywhere else).

In 1923, Columbus, Ohio, became the first city to make off-street parking mandatory for all new apartment buildings. Twenty-five years later, 185 cities had introduced parking requirements for land uses ranging from hospitals and theatres to office buildings and houses. “By 1960,” Jakle and Sculle explain, “nearly every large American city included parking requirements in its zoning program not just for tall buildings but for all buildings.” Even Houston — a city without zoning — requires off-street parking for every imaginable land use (restaurants, shops, apartments and more).

In many counties, five parking spaces — about 1,500 square feet — are required for every 1,000 square feet of shop or restaurant floor space. In one especially arduous stipulation, Montgomery County, Maryland, required funeral parlors to provide 83 parking spaces (24,900 square feet) per 1,000 square feet of floor area. Perhaps that explains the high cost of dying.

Divorce Your Car author Katie Alvord reflects upon the priorities of a California city that required 2.8 public library books per thousand residents and 2.2 parking spaces for every housing unit; a 4,000 unit development with an average of 2.7 people per unit would need 30 new library books and 8,800 parking spaces (2,640,000 square feet). This could be why more people seem to know the make and model of a car than the capital of the neighboring state.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are proscriptive: They tell developers exactly what to do. No city bans the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom. Many, however, ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot. Converting buildings to different uses is difficult in places with supercharged parking requirements. In many cities, a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance).

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. “Form follows parking requirements,” laments parking guru, Donald Shoup. This was already the case in 1948 Los Angeles, when the Journal of American Institute of Planners noted that, “in many cases, the number of garage spaces actually control the number of dwelling units which could be accommodated on a lot.”

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive. The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements restricts the rooming supply. “Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people,” writes Shoup. “By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse.”

Mandatory parking is almost always “free” (the law sometimes stipulates that it must be). In Los Angeles, for example, commercial and office spaces must provide at least three free parking spaces for every 1,000 square feet. Even when zoning laws don’t mandate free parking, the saturated “market” creates an expectation that parking will be free.

Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn’t profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for? Yet, drivers park free for 99 percent of all car trips. “It is no doubt ironic,” quipped German auto historian, Wolfgang Zuckermann, “that the motorcar, superstar of the capitalist system, expects to live rent-free.”

The push for subsidized parking began in the 1910s and 20s. Cities across the USA began devoting tens of millions of dollars to widen streets and cut down trees to increase parking space. Today it’s hard to find a street without space for curb parking, which Shoup argues, “may be the most costly subsidy Americans cities provide for most of their citizens.”

The cost of “free” parking is almost always hidden. Be it at Wal-Mart, McDonalds or a hospital, the free parking that lurks in the backyard of almost all private enterprise is buried in product prices.

“Seemingly, everyone but the motorist pays for parking,” lament Jakle and Sculle. The cost of “free” parking is astronomical. In 2002, for instance, the total subsidy for off-street parking in the USA was between $127 billion and $374 billion. Shoup argues that, “The cost of all parking spaces in the U.S. exceeds the value of all cars and may even exceed the value of all roads.”

The financial and social costs of automobile storage are enormous. PARK(ing) Day helps shine a spotlight on this little discussed topic.

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Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of just released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler [at] Read other articles by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler.