Graber parking main

Why Does America Provide More Space for Storing Cars Than Housing People?

How did we end up building an environment where the private car is often treated better than many of our fellow human beings? In the U.S., the center of car culture, parking is expected to be convenient, available, and free, writes Henry Grabar in his engaging and entertaining new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World (Penguin Press). Parking consumes vast amounts of land; in Los Angeles County, for example, it totals about 200 square miles. In New York City alone, there are 3 million curb parking spaces (not counting parking garages), which accounts for 6% of the city’s area—the equivalent of 13 Central Parks! Grabar asks: What better use could we make of this space? A 2021 study revealed that if New York reclaimed just a quarter of the street space allotted to cars, the following could be created: 500 miles of bus lanes; 40 miles of busways; 38 million square feet of community space; 1,000 miles of open streets; 3 million square feet of new pedestrian space; and 5.4 million additional square feet for restaurants, businesses, and cultural institutions. 

Paved Paradise book is filled with illuminating statistics. Grabar recounts the history of how parking became one of the most substantial portions of land use in the nation. He notes the postwar urban-renewal projects in many cities that cleared what were then seen as blighted neighborhoods (they were often lively residential and commercial blocks) to create urban centers for shopping to compete with new suburban malls. Free parking was part of that competition, offering easy access to suburban customers driving to city-center shopping developments. Cities also got into the parking business, creating municipal lots. By the late 1960s, nearly 70% of surface parking and 90% of parking garages were publicly owned. 

A further boost to the widespread creation of parking in cities and towns were new zoning and building codes that required on-site parking for new construction, much of it expected to be free. Virtually every U.S. jurisdiction in the 1950s and ’60s mandated the provision of parking spaces with every new home, store, school, office, doughnut shop, movie theater, or tennis court. “Over time,” Graber writes, “it was this decision, more than the highways or the malls or the tax-poaching suburbs themselves, that would prove the most influential legacy of the midcentury downtown parking crisis.” Minimum parking requirements, he observes, “were designed with exactly the amount of study and foresight you might bring to parking your own car at the supermarket: none.” 

The result? More space devoted to parking than we could ever hope to use. We treat our cars well. Grabar reports that, by square footage, there is more housing for each car in the U.S. than there is housing for each person. In many cities, the number of parking spaces devoted to each household is staggering: Philadelphia, 3.7 spaces per household; Seattle, 5; Des Moines, 20! He points out that many American downtowns, “such as Little Rock, Newport News, Buffalo, and Topeka, have more land devoted to parking than to buildings.” And consideration of the single largest land-use in American cities and towns is essentially nonexistent in urban planning textbooks and architecture school curricula.

One of the heroes of Grabar’s book is Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor who has studied parking for more than 50 years, spawning a following of former students who’ve become parking-policy wonks. Shoup’s 2005 book, The High Cost of Free Parking, blew the lid off the pseudoscience of minimum parking requirements, perpetrated by the Institute of Transportation Engineers’ (ITE’s) Parking Generation Manual, which stipulates minimum parking for virtually every building type and use, and has been woven into zoning codes across the country. In his own book, Shoup noted that ITE’s parking minimums displayed “a breathtaking combination of extreme precision and statistical insignificance.” The resulting overabundant parking became the arbiter of urban form, Shoup contends, with cars replacing people as zoning’s real density concern. 

Minimum parking requirements for new construction and rehab exert a hefty toll on construction budgets, which makes many kinds of developments—such as affordable housing—cost prohibitive. Grabar profiles a number of developers around the country who’ve attempted to build needed housing, but minimum parking requirements torpedoed their budgets. Often, the size of many building lots prohibit the amount of parking required. Grabar gives the example of developing a five-unit multifamily complex in Highland Park, California, an early streetcar suburb near Pasadena. Five studios would require one space each. Five one-bedroom units require eight spaces, while five two-bedrooms units need 10 spaces. “Given those stipulations, on a lot this size you wouldn’t be able to build this building at all,” he observes. Small buildings thus vanished from developer portfolios. Minimum parking makes it impossible to build infill apartment buildings, such as row houses, brownstones, and triple-deckers. Grabar quotes a statistic that bears this out: the construction of two-, three-, and four-unit buildings fell more than 90% between 1971 and 2021.

You might think architects design buildings, but they don’t. “Actually, we just arrange parking spaces,” L.A. architect Daniel Dunham told Grabar. “It’s the first thing you think about. The spaces determine the column grid, and the columns determine the building.” Thirty-foot column spacing is ideal for parking garages, explains Denham, but it’s too wide for one-bedroom units, and too narrow for two bedrooms. “We end up planning housing modules around this unit that works for parking but not for housing.” 

Author Henry Graber courtesy of Penguin Press.


But as the 21st century dawned, parking requirements were in retreat. In 1999, L.A. passed the Adaptive Reuse Ordinance, which lifted minimum parking requirements for renovating commercial buildings for housing, with a revised seismic code and an expedited permitting process. The impact was immense. In a decade a single developer, Tom Gilmore, converted more than 60 vacant buildings into 6,500 apartments—more than downtown L.A. had built in the previous three decades. The city’s downtown population more than tripled by 2020. By 2015, minimum parking requirements in cities around the U.S. were being lifted. Development was prompted by minimal or no parking requirements near public transit. Some cities allowed parking to be shared between day and night users (mixed-use office and residential buildings, for example). Walmart began reducing the size of its lots. In 2016, accessory dwelling units (ADUs), most of them garage conversions, were legalized in the L.A. metropolitan area, freeing up parking spaces converted to more affordable housing. And the pandemic dealt a blow to curbside parking. In many large cities, restaurants reeling from social distancing requirements took over curbside parking for outdoor seating, and patrons flocked to a new spin on al fresco dining. And when indoor capacity restrictions were lifted after mass vaccinations, “nobody moved,” writes Grabar. “Everyone wanted to be where the action was: outside.” 

Intelligent and consistently on-point, my only quibble with the book is that its drawings are clunky and amateurish, but they do get across the points they’re intended to illustrate. The author closes this well researched book with speculations on the future of parking. With driverless cars, will we even need parking garages or curb parking? Driverless cars might accelerate the end of private car ownership as we know it, but we have a long way to go. The author proposes a plan to move forward in a world where parking loses its throne: further abolish parking minimums to allow developers to provide the parking clients want; recognize that more parking means less housing, especially affordable housing; share parking among different building uses; charge for curb parking as a way of managing street uses. Grabar concludes that parking is access, but it is “a primitive kind of access that both overshadows and impedes a more profound and widely held right to the city.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.


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