11.5 C
Saturday, September 30, 2023
HomeEconomyHow American cities became one big parking lot

How American cities became one big parking lot


A concrete disease has been spreading through American cities for a century. And now, for the first time, new data allows us to measure its toll.

“At the center of our largest cities, some of the world’s most valuable public land is set aside exclusively for the free parking of private cars,” writes Henry Grabar, author of Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. There are more square meters of living space in the US for each car, he notes, than for each person.

Grabar lists some of the violent symptoms of the American car sickness: battles for coveted parking spaces that turn deadly “a few dozen times a year.” But the essential problem is not that parking in the US is too difficult, but that it is too easy. Abundant parking spaces have eroded city life.

Earlier this year, the Parking Reform Network, a nonprofit advocacy group, collected and mapped data on parking lots in the centers of US cities, knitting city centers together like empty quilt squares. PRN cites double costs of these plots. First, livability and walkability suffer as homes become less compact and more expensive, supplanted by stationary cars or empty spaces in front of them. Second, the opportunity cost is high, as parking is often clustered around major streets and historic cores.

“The center is a place where the community is and there’s a lot of events, a lot of activity, and a lot of energy,” Thomas Carpenito, PRN’s program director, told me. “You really can’t have that when every other block is parking.”

You see a snapshot of an interactive image. This is most likely because you are offline or JavaScript is disabled in your browser.

Yet, for example, 30 percent of downtown Detroit is reserved for parking, as are 28 percent of Louisville, 24 percent of Dallas and 21 percent of Phoenix. Swaths of city centers around the country exist solely to house cars. About 20 percent of all city centers surveyed were parking lots. “Every parking lot on that map is a building that has been torn down,” Carpenito said of Detroit. “It’s fitting that that’s the Motor City – the car was the future and cities were remade to accommodate the car.”

The result, as urban planner Jeff Speck once said, is that “the twin gods of smooth traffic and ample parking have turned our inner city into places that are easy to get to, but not worth arriving at.”

You see a snapshot of an interactive image. This is most likely because you are offline or JavaScript is disabled in your browser.


The ubiquity of parking spaces has been driven by widespread city parking minimums – strict mandates on the amount of parking spaces needed for each development. But these quotas are outdated and pseudoscientific, often leading to unnecessary costs or demolition, or no development at all. Instead, Carpenito sees a city as a living ecosystem: parking where it’s needed, not building where it isn’t.

My hometown of New York has been spared the worst scourge — only 1 percent of downtown is parking lots, according to PRN data. But even here, the city’s 3 million spaces are equivalent to about 12 Central Parks worth of roadside parking space. Nothing poses a greater visible threat to the city dweller than the increasingly large cars that surround them. This has led to the rallying cry of “parking on the street is theft”.

You see a snapshot of an interactive image. This is most likely because you are offline or JavaScript is disabled in your browser.


According to PRN more hopeful map of parking reforms, dozens of cities have abolished or lowered their parking minimums. Carpenito cited the housing crisis as a catalyst; maybe people should have more space than cars after all. Coincidentally, we met on the ground floor of an apartment building that used to be a parking lot.

In 2020, New York began cordoning off certain blocks as car-free zones at certain times. Walking past it was like reliving the familiar city. We felt that social intercourse was allowed and encouraged. We felt like the outdoors was meant for us.

oliver.roeder@ft.com, @ollie

Cards by Kristo Mikkonen

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

Latest stories