Parking: a Community Builder or Killer?

  • Author: Laurel Schwartz
  • Date: April 4, 2024

As pedestrian fatalities from motor vehicle traffic continue to rise in the U.S., communities are looking for solutions to promote safety. Experts think parking are one place to start.

Studies show that there are eight parking spots for every car in America. Combined, parking spots cover more land than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. How did we get here? When Americans first buying cars in the 1950s and the Interstate Highway system was developed, municipalities began passing zoning codes that had required parking minimums.

Meanwhile, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, 45% of Americans don’t have access to transit. By one estimate, there is a shortage of 7.3 million affordable homes in the U.S. “An off-street parking spot, plus the room necessary to maneuver in and out of it, requires more than 300 square feet—about two-thirds the size of a typical new studio apartment,” wrote Dante Ramos in The Atlantic.

In addition to using large amounts of space, impervious asphalt and concrete are environmentally detrimental. Parking lots collect polluted stormwater that degrade water quality. They also help cause urban heat islands, which can be dangerous during heat waves. Fortunately, many communities have started implementing effective short- and long-term solutions.

Changing zoning laws

UCLA urban planning professor Daniel Shoup argues that free parking is indirectly funded by all consumers, thus destroying market opportunities for paid parking. “On every block there should be one vacant place,” Shoup told Scientific American. “If there’s no vacant place, the price is too low.” For cities looking to reduce the number of cars in their downtown, Shoup also argued that it’s less controversial to charge for parking than congestion.

Several American cities have already begun abolishing post-war parking minimums. In 2017, Buffalo, NY became the first major city to do so. Minneapolis, Raleigh, San Jose, Anchorage, Gainesville, and Austin have also ended their parking minimums, which were based on arbitrary and outdated information.

Redesigning existing lots

A 1999 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that tree canopies over existing parking surfaces can cool the area by as much as 10%. Their recommendation was that parking lots be designed to provide at least 50% shade.

Further, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that rain gardens planted alongside parking lots mitigated the amount of polluted water runoff that went into stormwater management systems. The EPA also found that permeable interlocking concrete pavers, pervious concrete, and porous asphalt can all help manage and reduce stormwater run-off.

Prioritizing pedestrians over cars

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) reviewed cities where “parking policy has been reoriented around alternative social goals.” Zurich and Hamburg, for example, froze the existing number of parking spots in the city center, and began requiring that for every off-street parking spot created, an on-street space must be removed.

Some European cities, ITDP found, also pushed parking to peripheral locations, prioritizing the convenience of pedestrians over cars. These redesigns increased pedestrian access to shops, leading to higher retail revenue.

This trend has begun in the U.S., too. The Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) identified that “funding for pedestrian issues has increased dramatically since 1991.”

Accessibility, ITE found, is central to this shift. “One in every five people in this country has a disability, and one third of our population does not drive. These numbers alone reveal the diversity we have in this country and the need for a variety of transportation choices.”


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