top of page
Image by Joey Kyber

Our Industry: How Parking Destroyed the American City

Clyde Wilson

April 2024

“The Times They Are A-Changin’”, was written by Bob Dylan in 1963 and published in 1965, 59 years ago. The times were certainly changing in 1965 and again now in 2024. In the world, times change slowly but then along comes a blip where we tend to catch up or difficult things happen that need special attention. Afterwards, things calm back down into a rhythm waiting for the next blip. Today, several blips are impacting our daily lives but more importantly, they are impacting giant issues. Social media allows anyone with a position to attract a larger audience that seems to be willing to jump on issues without bothering to research the details behind the position. Throw in climate change, affordable housing, walkable streets, and underserved populations into any argument and you can take your position to the bank with city councils who will get changes made to negatively impact us for years to come.

Parking Matters

Our Industry is parking, and we provide parking solutions for areas both downtown and in the suburbs. We support a diverse group of businesses and people alike and are an important part of infrastructure. Whether we serve smaller populations or much larger ones, our role remains the same. When you build infrastructure, you are building support for the surrounding people and businesses that may physically last well over 50 years. When you build a commercial office building with a parking garage you have a choice: you can build enough parking generally 3 spaces per thousand square feet, or do what most did and build 1 space per thousand and allow the surrounding surface lots to take up the slack. A $200 million building was constructed for business and retail purposes in a community. Employees and customers of those businesses need a place to park their cars and if it is not available, they cannot get to work or that new suit, and those businesses die out. Make a mistake in planning parking and you will pay a price far greater than the value of the land or the cost of construction of the garage. Additionally, structures can and should last for decades. Therefore, if you make a mistake with infrastructure, it will be a costly mistake and difficult or impossible to correct for future generations. With parking, which is an inexpensive support business, it is far better to have more than you need than to find out you are short.

One notable example in my memory was a building that ran along at the comfortable 3 parking spaces per thousand square feet ratio. But when a very large 60,000-square-foot tenant moved into the building with a high number of employees per square foot trouble began. The new tenant was a medical-related business with offices all over the surrounding community. They would bring employees in for training sessions, also once a month they would have management meetings which brought in supervisors from surrounding branches. Suddenly, parking in the building could no longer manage the demand, and on high-demand days parking in the surrounding 9 blocks would pick up the demand. Then, as luck would have it the 300-space surface lot close to the building closed for the construction of a new one million SF building with 3,000 more cars that will impact the entire market. Now, that is an infrastructure problem!

American Cities Need Parking

We have in our midst an activist group who, from what we have been able to find, has no parking experience, no transportation engineering and planning experience, and no real policy planning understanding. These folks have decided to go after parking and have developed their City Council and State legislature talking points. They are following Donald Shoup’s book The High Cost of Free Parking. Professor Shoup’s book takes one point in the exceptionally large transportation network and uses 768 pages to develop the detail. Analyzing Professor Shoup’s book is not the intention of this article, but some examination is necessary.

Professor Shoup’s book highlighted the government-regulated parking requirements by specialty and the fact that government-mandated requirements of parking have possibly exaggerated the parking space requirements, causing an oversupply of parking that is free or below market price. This combination of parking surplus and low prices has caused more people to purchase vehicles and drive them at every opportunity, no matter how short the distance. Thus, lots of cars going to lots of places do indeed require lots of parking spaces.

Parking contributes heavily to the transportation network required to support a city. The transportation network is made up of mass transit, high-speed rail, light rail, busses (both mass movers of people or smaller busses used for specific purposes), and the very small micro-mobility (like bikes, peddle and battery, battery-powered scooters, walking, taxi, and shared ride vehicles), and finally 278 million personally owned vehicles (POV’s) owned by 87% of Americans. When you start removing parking, you are tampering with the total transportation network and the massive American City structure it supports.

In an earlier “Our Industry” article, I described the challenges transportation and traffic engineers faced as they were trying to develop standards in the 50s, 60s and 70s. The infrastructure they developed allowed cities and suburbs to grow and become established. It seems that we must applaud their ingenuity and forward-thinking practice: they took an unprecedentedly large land area, with more drivers than ever before (thank you, baby boomers!) and gave us something that worked then and is still working today.

At some point, the transportation engineers and planners had to make a decision about money. America has a large population that does not prefer to live on top of each other in a densely populated city. Americans like space and privacy! The decision was made to spend available transportation funds on highways and parking, which are accessible to every driver who chooses to own a car. It is easy to look back and blame them and attack what feels like excessive parking, but I suggest we look at it with gratitude: every driver can get where he or she needs to go and probably find a parking spot! Additionally, may we who are solving problems today do so with as much grit and tenacity so that we can offer future commuters a workable solution too.

In the coming articles, we will explain the true value of parking, disclose the unbelievable costs of building high-speed rail and expanded metro rail, and we will discuss the true meaning of affordable and walkable cities.

Parking Antagonists

In the last month, the Parking Reform Network has published articles that I believe show what they are promoting, how they think, and what I believe we in the parking industry should be aware of. In January, they published in YaleEnvironment 360 an article titled “How Parking Reform is Transforming American Cities”. By transforming they mean, and I quote, “Bad parking policy inhibits affordable housing, neighborhood walkability, and the prospect of having a greener, cleaner city.” So, they just blamed us “Our Industry” for all of their imagined shortcomings of the American City and they followed with, “Parking is a central component of the transportation-land use mess that has left so many Americans dependent on two or more cars per household. Parking lots are an environmental disaster twice over, consuming vast quantities of materials and land while they subsidize endless driving.” This sounds like someone who does not want to live in the suburbs, have a family, own a car, but does want to live in a city that represents all of the benefits of the suburbs. Doesn’t this remind you of what your mom always said about people who want to “have their cake and eat it too”?

The agenda dangerously impacts the future of our cities. City Councils across the country are prioritizing this city concept and interpretation of Professor Shoup’s book while making decisions and policies that could be around for decades. The impacts of these seemingly small changes to infrastructure can have tremendous consequences over time. We should be concerned when misguided policies and spending manipulate the 87% of Americans who drive 278 million cars every day. City plans that limit transportation to conduct life and business restrict every part of liberty and freedom.

The Parking Industry professional’s concern is that activists are tampering with the infrastructure of our communities in a way that is bound for trouble. The times, they are a-changin’, but we are making plans and policies haphazardly. We must realize the challenges without sugar-coating them, do the hard work to make a plan that improves commutes and business for corporations and families in a fiscally responsible way, and then develop an infrastructure plan that will get us through the next 80 years. We are definitely behind on finding a solution, but entertaining a car-hater's dream is not the advancement that will make us proud in 2124.

bottom of page