Although it might feel like there’s never anywhere to park, most U.S. cities have way more spots than they’ll ever need. But getting a precise count of all the curbside, garage, and surface lot parking in a city is a daunting task, to say the least, which often requires the use of satellite imagery. Tracking that space over a century seems almost unimaginable.
And yet a research group has done just that for Los Angeles County. Using detailed local information on zoning codes and developer parking minimums, as well as population data within county census tracts, the researchers took a full accounting of L.A.’s on- and off-street parking infrastructure from 1900 to 2010. This “spatially explicit inventory,” as they call it in the Journal of the American Planning Association, ties the metro area’s historic spread of abundant parking to the infamous car-reliance and highway growth of today.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key findings (reported in JAPA by Mikhail Chester, Andrew Fraser, and Carolyn Flower of Arizona State; Juan Matute of UCLA; and Ram Pendyala of Georgia Tech) and what it all means.
Roughly 14 percent of L.A. County’s incorporated land is tied to parking
All told, L.A. had about 200 square miles of total parking infrastructure “dedicated to automobile storage” in 2010—or 14 percent of the county’s incorporated land, according to the new study. (That’s on-street parking spots, such as curb spaces, and off-street garages and lots alike.) Coverage in the urbanized area amounted to 16 acres of parking for every 100 acres of land, more than double the seven acres of parking coverage from back in 1950.
Watch parking gradually conquer the city in the animated map gif below:
That’s enough to fit 18.6 million spaces
Over that 1950-2010 time-period the total number of parking spots in L.A. County soared from about 6 million to 18.6 million. Here’s the breakdown: 5.5 million residential off-street spots, 9.6 million non-residential off-street spots, and 3.6 million on-street spots. As the chart below shows, it’s the non-residential off-street parking that’s grown the fastest in recent decades—no doubt due to developer minimums.
Which comes out to 3.3 spots for every car
For those 18.6 million spots, there are a mere 5.6 million registered county vehicles vying for them. In other words, 3.3 spaces exist for every car in the city (a handy stat the next time an Angelino complains about finding parking). Much of that gap occurred as a result of parking requirements imposed during the first half of the 20th century; while the county gained more parking spots than cars from 1950 to 1975, vehicle growth outpaced parking growth after that time—suggesting that the availability of spaces encouraged more people to get cars.
And 1.4 times more area than is devoted to roads
Considerably more space is devoted to parking in L.A. than to roads themselves: 200 square miles to 140 square miles, according to the study. Since 1945, parking growth (and especially non-residential parking growth) far outpaces street and freeway growth in the county. Vehicle miles traveled far outpaces both trends, which implicates parking as a factor in increased driving demand as well as “worsening congestion in the region,” write the researchers.
Parking growth peaked between 1950 and 1980
These three decades served as the prime era for parking expansion in L.A. During that stretch the number of spots increased by about 310,000 a year, on average, with a high nearing half a million the mid-1960s. The annual growth slows down after 1980, when the county only added 130,000 spaces a year. “By 1990,” write the researchers, “the growth of residential off-street and on-street spaces slowed as infrastructure matured.”
Most of it occurred outside the urban core
By 1950 downtown L.A. was mostly built up. So most of the 12 million parking spots the county added between that year and 2010 were located outside the city center. The cheaper land in these areas made it easier to build spaces, and in turn the abundance of spaces made them available to drivers at cheap or low prices. As a result, according to the study, vehicle growth was 1.1 times faster outside the core than inside it.
“Higher ratios in the suburbs (more spaces per vehicle) likely led to the acquisition of additional vehicles between 1950 and 2010,” co-author Matute tells CityLab via email. “That means that people acquire additional vehicles because there is ample parking.”
But downtown is still home to the greatest parking density
Growth in the fringes aside, L.A.’s core is still home to the most parking per area. The researchers report that some census tracts in the central business district have upwards of 260,000 total off-street parking spaces per square mile—much of it packed into multi-level garages. One result of this parking supply is that fewer people travel downtown via public transportation than they might otherwise. Via JAPA:
There is abundant parking where high-quality transit exists, which is likely to work against transit, walking, and biking.
Will things ever change?
So there’s a lot of parking in L.A. The researchers feel confident that parking minimums got the city into this situation. But they’re equally concerned that reforming or even eliminating these requirements won’t be enough, on its own, to counteract the “long-term negative impacts”; there’s just too much space dedicated to parking spaces:
The existing parking infrastructure is likely to work against policy initiatives to curb the use of the car, reduce auto congestion, increase transit usage, and address equity issues, even if minimum parking requirements on development are reduced or reformed.
New parking rules are still a good start. In addition, the researchers urge local officials to consider a suite of planning shifts—especially converting existing garages or surface lots into affordable housing, mixed-use projects, or transit-friendly developments. The complexity of such projects means that any meaningful recovery of parking land for other purposes is likely a long way off. There’s no quick fix for 110 years of history.