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From Past to Present: Shaping the Future of Parking in Modern Cities

Understanding the Past to Shape the Future

Again, I will start an article with the statement that I was a history major and a strong believer that you must understand how you got to the present before you can formulate a plan to move forward. It is easy to criticize the past and easy to criticize where we are now. It’s hard to understand the past and how it played out to shape the present day. Sometimes, molding and managing the past is what brought us to a present that is not exactly perfect. 

Only the best in an industry can look at that path and make the improvements that are needed to shape the future. I’m betting that the people who are reading this article are those who want to shape the future. This article will discuss the history of parking. We will mention briefly the people who complain parking is overbuilt and underpriced. And in the next article, we will start doing what the best do, and that is moving our industry forward and fitting into our place in time.

The Post-WWII Boom and the Birth of Modern Parking

The planners for the modern cities that we have today started in earnest in the 50s and 60s after World War II. When the war was over, the manufacturing of automobiles skyrocketed.  Prior to this time, there were no interstates or superhighways, there were just not enough cars to need more than two-lane roads. The Baby Boom generation was in full development and the race to the suburbs had begun. The pressure on the planners and transportation engineers of the 50s and 60s was tremendous principally because they had no historical reference to measure roadways and parking requirements and really no way to understand how big the job would become. The planners of U.S. cities faced a huge challenge with no model to use for guidance.

Activists or Planners? Understanding the Critics

In last month’s “Our Industry” (“Walkable Cities”) article we discussed the content of an article written in the Houston Chronicle by the Parking Reform Network (PRF). Because the article was about my home city, and about parking, and was very much an attack on our industry, I decided to address the article. I have spent time reading about The Parking Reform Network and getting a feel for who they are and why they attack parking. When you open the Parking Reform website you see:

Why Parking Reform?

For Climate Action, Housing Affordability, and Safer Streets. From that introduction, they sound more like Activists than they do Planners. On their home page they refer to themselves as Activists and in most of their interviews they sound more like Activists than Planners. Remember, in the second sentence, “It is easy to criticize the past (Activist), but hard to mold the future (Planners).” Activists must have something to go after so they chose parking and direct their attacks on the perceived overbuilt and underpriced supply of parking that encourages more car ownership and more people to drive. 

PNR believes we should remove parking and build more affordable high-density housing requiring fewer cars, and most importantly, less parking. In their article in the Houston Chronicle, PRN stated that 20 percent of the surface in the city of Houston was surface parking and it could be converted to housing at a rate of 40,000 people per square mile. In the PRN view, 40,000 people per square mile is a better use of land than a few surface parking lots. 

We are talking about Houston, Texas, so if you want to house 40,000 people, we have the room. There is also one really important point that is missing. Almost 100 percent of the land used for surface parking, at least in the urban areas, is just waiting for someone to pay the cost of buying the land and building something. This land is what is called “land banked” land just waiting for a higher and better use. If you want to build affordable housing, surface parking lots are not your problem. The lots are simply used for parking cars while someone waits for development money.

As I read PNR’s statement on our industry, I realized it is easy to attack something you do not understand. The attack on overbuilt parking that allows for free or inexpensive parking and causes more of those terrible cars to drive around has been out there for 40 plus years. This statement on the industry is from the same people who for 40 years stated with authority that 30 percent of cars were circling on city streets polluting our air while looking for a parking place (recent surveys have stated the number is more like 7 percent). Which is it, are we overbuilt or do we have too many cars and not enough parking spaces? The activist tied the two together, the planners built too many parking spaces for free or a low price causing too many cars to try to find a parking space. Either way cars are bad, is what they say. 

Evaluating Historical Parking Models

In 1964, The Urban Land Institute, in coordination with the International Council of Shopping Centers, could see the coming boom in the regional shopping malls. The planners could see the growth coming because of the Baby Boom and growth in suburbia. There were many challenges trying to meet the demands in the 1960s for developing multi-use, multi-retail projects with no real measure to gauge development standards. 

If you are developing a 200,000 square foot mail with many different types of retail, restaurant, entertainment and seasonality trends and there are no design standards, then how many parking spaces are needed? Non, Nothing. The two groups got together to undertake a program to evaluate parking standards in two phases. The pilot study, completed in 1963, was used to guide the establishment of the technique for a primary survey of 270 shopping centers carried out in 1964. Peak demand was determined to be 2:30 and 8:00 pm on the 12 days before Christmas. At the time, transportation engineers were using the 13th busiest hour to determine the demand for roadway construction. They decided it worked for highway development so it should work for parking demand, thus the 13th busiest hour was determined the designed parking standard. This meant there were 8,747 hours of parking spaces that were not fully utilized. 

People did not walk to the mall, and I remember well driving with my mom to shop downtown. This same type of method was used throughout the boom of the 50s and 60s in the development of projected parking space demand in new, growing cities. Did we end up a little overbuilt in terms of parking spaces through the growth years of the 70s 80s 90s? Yes. The growth of suburban malls and strip centers pulled a tremendous amount of traffic out of downtown. 

At the same time, this early excess supply made sure that if you used your car to go from the suburbs to downtown for any number of reasons you would have a parking space. I did work on the value of a parking space 30 years ago and there are some new numbers out today that are not very far from my 30-year-old number. Thirty years ago, my number for the income produced by a transient parking space was $97,000 annually; now they are projecting just over $300,000 annually. With a $300k annual value do you really want to be the planner that comes up one or 100 or a 1,000 parking spaces short?  

The Balance Between Parking Supply and Urban Growth

Would we all choose to spend less time in our car driving to work, shopping, school and other events? Yes. It is possible if we really work hard to have it both ways. It is our challenge to find the compromise between driving and other means of mobility, and at the same time continue to have viable communities. It seems the most important lesson of this is that we are again in a transition period. But as we plan for the future, we must remember we are an American city and community. We are not in any way a European community. Forty years from now we should hope we have improved on our transportation models and demands, but we will still be a purely American model.

Looking Ahead: Our Industry’s Role in the Future

We have stated our case concerning the Activists who would prefer the 15-minute city with people living stacked on top of each other over the freedom of a car on the open road, and room to breathe in our community. From this point, it is more important to focus “Our Industry” articles to come on parking, the parking of today, how we got here, the mistakes we made, the successes we have had, and the challenges of the future. The goal of the “Our Industry” articles is charting the path of the past to the future. 

As we move forward as an industry, our role in the future of the transportation network will be to maintain the American lifestyle, improve the climate, and make sure everyone has affordable housing. Those of us reading this article are fully capable of succeeding in that role.

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