In fact, we paved paradise on purpose. After World War II, cities around the country adopted planning rules that required developers to build new automobile parking spots every time they built new places to live and work. These parking minimums have increased over time. In the 1930s, Los Angeles County required developers to build one parking space per single-family home; today, among other rules, the county requires two parking spaces per home, two per 2-bedroom apartment, one spot for every 250 square feet of retail space and one for every 400 square feet of office space.
Transportation experts have been calling attention to the disastrous effects of these rules for more than a decade, and in the last few years dozens of cities have eliminated or reformed their minimum-parking regulations. Now California, the state that in many ways set the standard for America’s car-dependent lifestyle, could be on the verge of reforming parking statewide. One bill moving through the state Legislature would prohibit cities from enforcing most minimum parking requirements near public transit, while a competing bill would give developers greater leeway in avoiding the rules. I hope legislators in my state adopt the former, stricter version of these measures, but even the more lenient one would be a significant improvement on the status quo, and would enshrine in our urban code a truth that has too long been ignored: Cities should be built for people, not cars.
There are many obvious arguments against minimum parking rules. Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book “The High Cost of Free Parking” sparked much academic interest in the excesses of parking when it was first published in 2005, points out that the rules raise real estate costs. Parking is expensive — one study found that building-structured on-site parking added nearly $36,000 to the cost of building one unit of low-income housing in California. In some places these costs become truly staggering. The Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, has a seating capacity of 2,265 in its main hall, and when it was completed in 2003 it had cost roughly $274 million to build. Its six-story underground parking garage has space for nearly as many cars — 2,188 — and cost an additional $110 million to build. That is, parking represented more than a quarter of the project’s nearly $400 million total cost.
You might argue that all this parking space is necessary — how else are people in a car-dependent metropolis like Los Angeles going to get to Disney Hall without driving and parking there? But by requiring parking spaces at every house, office and shopping mall — while not also requiring new bike lanes or bus routes or train stations near every major development — urban-planning rules give drivers an advantage in cost and convenience over every other way of getting around town. We need all that parking at Disney Hall because, thanks to all that parking, we’ve made driving the city’s default way of going anywhere.
There are other ways parking wrecks the urban fabric. It creates its own sprawl — the more endless, often empty parking lots between businesses, the less walkable and more car-dependent the city becomes. Because pavement sucks up ambient heat, parking also creates enormous urban “heat islands” that intensify the effects of global warming. And requiring parking worsens inequality. Because people whose income is less tend to drive less and use transit more, they’re essentially being forced to pay for infrastructure they don’t need — while wealthier car drivers get a break on the true costs of their car habit. “People who are too poor to own a car pay more for their groceries to ensure that richer people can park free when they drive to the store,” Shoup has written.