Maps

How Too Much Parking Strangled the Motor City

When supporting local businesses means driving everywhere.

Image
Reuters

By Rob Linn's count, 39.2 percent of the land in downtown Detroit has been paved over or built up for the purposes of parking. There are surface lots across the street from each other, parking garages around nearly every corner, more than 5,000 spaces alone within the half mile around Comerica Park.

To put that visually, this is downtown Detroit, its garages in orange and surface lots in red:

Rob Linn

A planner by training who now works for the Southwest Detroit Business Association, Linn counted all that parking and constructed that map in his spare time (as we've previously written, this is a maddening pursuit in any city given that garages are managed by dozens of entities, and no one officially counts them all).

Many downtowns, particularly in the Rust Belt, now look something like this. But so much parking has played a central role in the Motor City, where an attachment to the automobile – both economically and culturally – has helped cause much of the city to hollow out.

"A lot of residents sort of consider it like their patriotic duty to avoid mass transit, to create auto-focused landscapes," says Linn, a Detroit native. "In many ways, it's indicative of the belief that it’s sort of your duty to support all the local companies."

The Detroit metropolitan area has one of the lowest shares of workers who commute by public transit among the nation's 50 largest cities, edging out primarily Southern metros like Dallas and Birmingham. Detroit also has the highest percentage of commuters in any major city who drive to work alone, at 84.2 percent. All those people, of course, need somewhere to park – at the office, at the ballgame, at dinner.

"I think I fall victim to this perception sometimes – being a Midwesterner, being a Detroiter – that when I go downtown, I expect to be able to park within four blocks of where I’m going," Linn says. Yet he knows he doesn't have that expectation when he's in New York or Chicago or Boston. "I think it’s a hard nut to crack because it's been ingrained in so many of us from such a young age."

As a result, downtown destinations that might share a garage (or a subway stop) in another city each have their own parking lots in Detroit. Every location is wrapped in a kind of maximum capacity of parking, much of which is, by definition, unused at any given time. And all those empty lots and anonymous facades make the experience of actually walking through the neighborhood feel uninviting, pushing up the premium for a parking spot right next to wherever you're going.

"This is definitely a self-perpetuating cycle in which you sort of drain the vibrancy out of an area by adding more parking," Linn says, "which then makes the area seem unsafe, which makes you feel a little more uncomfortable in the space, which makes you add more parking."

And on and on. Linn's map, though, actually turned up last week at a Historic District Commission meeting where the city was debating plans to demolish a Gilded Age bank building downtown to construct in its place... another parking garage. This was the developer's only-in-Detroit logic, via the Detroit Free Press:

Bob Kraemer, a Detroit-based architect representing the owners who want to demolish the bank building, told the commission that demolition was a trade-off to save the equally historic Penobscot skyscraper. Without parking nearby, the Penobscot becomes less economically viable, Kraemer said.

The commission rejected the plan, a small inroads against the 57 existing parking garages downtown. Now Linn doesn't have to further update the map that may finally be changing peoples' minds.

Hat tip: Deadline Detroit.

Top image new of cars on a parking lot in Detroit in 2008: Carlos Barria/Reuters

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.