Parking lots are a problem for cities

Parking lots are a problem for cities

A few years ago I was in São Paulo, Brazil , when the sky, where the sun had previously shone, suddenly turned gray and it began to rain. From a café, behind a barricaded door, I watched as the water flooded the street. We saw plastic bags floating down the street at the speed of a bicycle. Then, large pieces of wood, which could have come from an unsecured construction site. And, finally, cars that wheeled slowly in the creek that had formed and floated down the block like bathtub toys.

As the sky cleared and the flash flood receded, it left cars at strange angles on a trash-strewn street. It was a frightening demonstration of what it means to live in a world of asphalt. We weren't in the path of some subterranean river or above a lake that had been silted up long ago. We were in the center of the largest city in the western hemisphere, a place where water flows not along ancient streams and rivers, but according to the concrete networks and sewers we created ourselves. In the years since, I've seen the same phenomenon happen in cities like Chicago or Seoul. We have pioneered unexplored, man-made flood spaces.

Some of this is unavoidable. What is a city if not an agglomeration of streets and buildings? Rooftops can be green to a certain extent and drains large to a certain extent. But there is one type of infrastructure that, most of all, contributes to the problem and gives us very little back: parking lots. In Silicon Valley, the richest and most productive area in America, parking lots cover 13 percent of the entire territory. In urban areas alone the percentage is higher. The opportunity cost is enormous. Much of the land dedicated to parking is empty most of the time; only a small part generate income; overall it is a barrier to better uses – such as planting trees and marsh plants that can help cities adapt to 21st century climate change.

Donald Shoup, the urban planning professor who founded modern parking studies, says: "Whatever the question, the answer is parking." Indeed, flooding in cities is not the only phenomenon for which parking policy may be partly responsible and which a different parking policy could improve. Housing is also on the list: while most nations struggle with a crippling housing shortage in prime metropolitan areas, the need to provide parking is both a political and financial obstacle to the return of pleasing building practices that we enjoy. they gave away so much of that 19th and early 20th century urban structure that we all love. Parking has also changed the architecture by invading the design of homes, offices and shops.

However, parking has no impact as much as transport. The cost and availability of parking is the main determining factor in people's decisions whether to buy cars, drive instead of walk, cycle or use public transport. They take up a lot of space, separating the places we want to go and pushing them further apart, thus making it difficult, dangerous and unpleasant to get around in any other way than by car. And since most parking is required by law and free for motorists, it translates into a huge economic subsidy for car owners. In residential buildings, for example, parking increases the cost of rents by 15 to 20 percent whether you drive or not. This is a big economic aid for residents who have a vehicle, paid for by those who do not.

Then there is the issue of public space. In cities especially, most people park their cars with right of way over the rest – often for free. Many times this land is of immense value and could easily be used in different ways. Why then reserve it for free parking? Why should a citizen pay hundreds of dollars a month for storage the size of a closet, when others are getting free space in front of their homes that is provided for use by car users?

No It's a theoretical question, because a lot of people would pay to use curbside space for other things. Restaurants would like to use it to seat and serve food for residents and employ other people, while generating tax revenue. Delivery companies would happily pay to avoid the endless search for a parking space that often results in double-parking and hefty fines. Finally, planners would love to use the curbside space to create bike lanes and bus lanes. But the parking lots get in the way.

Why are the parking lots such a mess? While the public sector dealt with the roads and the private sector with the cars, it was never clear who was responsible for the 'deposit'. This ambiguity has always been one of the characteristics of parking lots. Similarly, parking lots are abandoned between the rules governing transport on the one hand, and land use on the other. The Germans call parking areas "stationary traffic" and, to some extent, it makes sense to think of parking spaces as traffic, since their availability and ease of access are so closely related to traffic patterns, and why often park in the streets. On the other hand, many parking areas are on private property, so it somehow makes more sense to consider them as part of the architecture and real estate market.

Either way, the tide is turning: Cities that once considered curbside spaces de facto free parking areas are exploring new uses or, at least, installing parking meters to declutter curbsides through the price market. And on private property, cities that once required a certain amount of parking for every bedroom in an apartment, every seat in a movie theater, every bed in a school dormitory, have now begun to do the opposite, imposing a maximum number of parking spaces for each given project. London began restricting parking two decades ago and developments since then have resulted in hundreds of thousands of fewer parking spaces. Meanwhile, the asphalt archipelago reserved for parking has been put to new uses. Public areas such as piazza Navona, which was once effectively a car park, have rediscovered their true purpose: to be places where people congregate. In Paris, underground garages have been converted into residential buildings, while their other counterparts have become spaces for growing mushrooms or centers for logistics. Elsewhere, where there used to be surface parking, residential buildings have been built, with the result that sleepers take the place of sleeper cars.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the car park for itself – a dead space that Jane Jacobs has called an “empty edge” for its distressing effect on nearby properties and pedestrian traffic. Past planners may have thought such a policy would create a traffic nightmare, with motorists clogging the streets desperate for a parking space. In reality what happened is the opposite. Fewer people buy cars and fewer people drive their own cars. City life thrives as more people walk, shop and support smaller local businesses. And since the roads are a little less busy, driving becomes a little easier too.

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