Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, by Henry Grabar (Penguin Press, 368 pp., $30)
Many of us have had the experience of coming back to our car to find a ticket under the wiper (or, worse, arriving just as the citation is being written). In recent years, I don’t know how many apps I’ve had to download to pay for a space somewhere I’ve visited. In his new book, Henry Grabar explores the many issues parking raises, beyond the headaches and hassles we deal with daily. Along the way, he shows us how dramatically our environment has been shaped by expectations of parking.
Where to leave one’s vehicle is apparently not a new challenge: Julius Caesar created off-street parking for chariots. For nearly 2,000 years, though, parking wasn’t a general expectation or civic requirement—partly because most people did not own their means of transport. The arrival of the automobile brought a twofer: faster and more efficient transport and a cultural imperative for each adult, or at least each household, to have a car of one’s own. Suddenly, the need to find a place to store these things when stationary (which they are most of the time) became a key factor shaping cities and suburbs.
Roads are shared public spaces, and few cities latched on immediately to the idea of charging for access to the curb. Grabar’s history suggests that more should have done so sooner, and the rest of us should see the parking meter or the time limit sign not as a bugbear but as a fairer method of distributing access to a scarce asset. As Grabar explains, “Detroit imposed time limits in 1915; Boston in 1920. New York City restricted parking to twenty minutes on Broadway and other big streets. In downtown Los Angeles, it was forty-five minutes. But enforcement was nearly impossible.”
In cities that left their curbs open, street parking fell prey to the tragedy of the commons. Curb space is a valuable resource, and in many places it’s free to anyone who gets there first. To make matters worse, local residents treat it as a deeded entitlement and resent sharing.
It was thus an accident of planning that we expect parking to be immediately available, preferably directly in front of our destination, and most importantly, free. We wouldn’t dream of holding any other good or service to the same standard. Yet today many people would rather circle the block looking for a space at the curb rather than drive into a paid garage.
“Free” parking actually makes the scarcity of spots worse by pushing up demand and forcing more illegal stops (double parking, hydrant-blocking, and so on)—a situation aggravated further by “haphazard enforcement, which requires cities to impose big fines to have any deterrent effect at all.” Counterintuitively, this is a disincentive for cities to install meters, because with them, “enforcement revenue goes down, because people can always find a place to park.” What city wants a drop in its revenue? Grabar gives the example of New York City, which benefits to the tune of millions of dollars per year in fines handed out just to UPS, for its drivers’ illegal stops while making deliveries—stops they are forced to make, since much of the curb space is being taken up by vehicles parked there long-term. This dynamic encourages cities to maintain the status quo.
Parking as a business also puts the brakes on other infrastructure. Astonishingly, Grabar explains that “at airports, parking sometimes brings in more money than aviation itself. (Not having a proper mass transit connection can be good business.)”
Meantime, the popular sense that there is “nowhere to park” is mostly a fallacy. Studies show that ample parking is available within a short radius of pretty much anywhere. Rather, there is resistance among drivers to walking more than 30 yards or to going to the paid garage around the corner. However much parking there is, we seem to want more, or at least we say we do.
At mid-century, the high point for highways, cities were focused on making even more space for their residents’ vehicles, Grabar explains:
Between 1950 and 1980, when Los Angeles was the fastest-growing city in the United States, LA County was adding parking spaces at an almost unimaginable pace—850 new spots every day for thirty years. Parking now occupies two hundred square miles of land in the county, far more space than the streets and the famous freeways.
The real villain of Grabar’s story is parking mandates—civic requirements that developers provide a minimum number of spaces with every residential building, office block, or strip mall. City leaders thought that they could outsource parking provision to private developers. Unfortunately, writes Grabar, “America just stopped building small buildings. Parking requirements helped trigger an extinction-level event for bite-sized, infill apartment buildings like row houses, brownstones, and triple-deckers; the production of buildings with two to four units fell more than 90 percent between 1971 and 2021.”
Local residents also latch onto parking as a way to scupper planned development. Grabar traces several examples, including arguments made to planning committees. Looking to protect their property values, sophisticated NIMBYs cloak their objections as a plea about parking. Demanding that a developer shell out for parking spaces on half the property, or that he pay through the nose for underground or multistory parking, is an easy way of pricing any “affordable” developments out of existence.
The result of these dynamics has been a sea of asphalt, spreading across our cities like a disease. And the sad irony is we don’t really want parking lots everywhere: “Instead, precisely because they offer access to places where car ownership is optional, buildings without sufficient parking are among the most in-demand structures we have. In virtually every U.S. city, the most expensive neighborhood is a prewar, mixed-use streetcar suburb that it would be illegal to build today.”
We want the cities of a century ago, before parking consumed them. But we still want space for our car.
Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images