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How Parking Spaces Are Eating Our Cities Alive

More cities are beginning to scale back on spots, seeing them as wasted space.

How much space does your car take up?

A new production from Streetfilms and transportation nonprofit ITDP breaks it down Schoolhouse Rock-style: The average parking space requires about 300 square feet of asphalt. That’s the size of a studio apartment in New York, enough room to hold 10 bicycles.

It’s not just the 300 square feet in your driveway or at the curb outside your apartment building that your car requires to be fully functional. If you drive a personal motor vehicle for basic everyday transportation, there’s also the 300 square feet at your job, and at the supermarket, and outside the restaurant where you have dinner. There’s the 300 square feet at your kid’s school, at the hardware store, at the coffee shop. Wherever you go, you’re going to need a parking space.

No one knows how many off-street parking spaces there are in the world; estimates for the United States alone run from 105 million to 2 billion. A lot of that real estate is sitting vacant most of the time, and causing all sorts of problems. When clustered in surface parking lots, parking spaces create heat islands and sources of polluted stormwater runoff. They hollow out cities and divide neighborhoods. They are significant generators of emissions, accounting for as much as 12 percent of energy consumption and greenhouse gases, and as much at least 24 percent of other emissions. Arguably, they also create traffic by incentivizing driving, making life less convenient rather than more for people who have no choice other than driving.

Many of these spaces exist because of parking-minimum regulations. These require developers to provide a certain number of spaces for every residential or office building they build, on the presumption that everyone must drive to get there. The idea behind all these parking spots, as the film points out, is to improve the quality of life for a city’s residents. The effect is often the exact reverse, as parking eats up space where humans used to walk, live, play, and do business.

Now, cities around the world are starting to reconsider. London and many other British cities have done away with parking minimums and replaced them with parking maximums. Paris has effectively eliminated minimums in the central city by enacting rules that say developers are not required to build parking if their structures are within 500 meters of a Metro stop, which is true of most of the city’s core.

São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, is taking the lead in the developing world with a brand-new master plan that eliminates parking minimums and institutes parking maximums along transit corridors. Developers can build one space per residential unit without incurring a charge, but spaces beyond that will cost them extra. ITDP hails the plan as “leading the way for cities in developing countries to pass major parking reform, making the city more transit and pedestrian friendly.”

It took a century to engineer cities in such a way that space for cars, even ones that are sitting idle, became valued more than space for people. This little film poses a question: Are we willing to do the simple math and start heading in another direction?

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.