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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Meunier

Henry Grabar's "Paved Paradise"

Every car owner knows that parking can be a source of anxiety. Even in my small city– where we can often park on the curb in front of our destination– there have been occasional waves of public consternation around the quantity of parking spots. As a regular visitor to the Adirondacks, I recently watched a trial plan for a free(!) parking reservation system at a major trailhead light up online forums and divide the hiker community. Our love affair with cars in the U.S. means that parking is enmeshed with feelings of insecurity, imagined independence, and a sense of almost territorial entitlement.

"Paved Paradise" catalogues the surprising ways that accommodating stationary vehicles has shaped our world. The book is replete with fascinating statistics. A few of my favorites include:

  • The average car spends 95% of its life parked.

  • The value of all the parking spots in the U.S. (many of which are free to use) exceeds the total value of all roads and vehicles in the U.S. combined.

  • About 30% of traffic in busy urban business districts is cars circling for parking.

  • Parking required by municipal codes costs the American renter household $1,700 per year (a cost that is also passed on to those who don't own a vehicle).

Grabar includes dozens of well-researched and detailed narratives. These range from the rise of the shopping mall, a scandalous scheme to privatize Chicago's parking meters, and the stunning potential for criminal enterprise in the parking business. Featured among the crime bosses, political grifters, and optimistic city planners is the economist Donald Shoup (author of The High Cost of Free Parking) who inspired a cult-like following of Shoupistas who advocate for data-driven parking reform.

According to Shoup, a key tool in the battle to rationalize parking is the parking meter (he was known to keep one in his office). The low cost of parking meters relative to parking garages in most cities means that a ten or fifteen minute hunt for a curb spot is time well spent. In most municipalities, the fees and fines generated from parking enforcement outstrip the revenue from meters. After the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, investigations found that fines resulted in a disproportionate number of arrest warrants for nonviolent offences: 32,975 for a city of 21,135. The Shoupistas believe that keeping metered parking rates commensurate with their true value decreases the need for enforcement while simultaneously reducing congestion. The rise of better technology even makes variable pricing possible (think of how Uber uses surge pricing) and allows parking systems to optimize curb parking prices to allow for free spots at any given time. Systems like this are actually in use in several U.S. cities.

Some of Grabar's more disturbing vignettes demonstrate how parking has been used to shut down attempts to build affordable housing and restrict access to public resources. For example, parking minimum laws (most introduced in the 1950's and 60's) require a certain number of parking spots for new buildings. One study in California found that structured parking added $35,945 to the construction cost of each home. Building costs, red tape, and public concern about parking were enough to kill an affordable housing project described in the first chapter. Parking can also be used as a way to inflame communities into opposition to new housing projects that some view as undesirable. In high income ZIP codes, exorbitant parking fees for non-residents are a time-honored way of excluding people from public parks and beaches.

In one of my favorite anecdotes from "Paved Paradise," Grabar describes how the creators of the original Sim City computer game realized that it wouldn't be possible to realistically portray the shear amount of land used for parking in today's cities. Many of the cities and downtowns we admire (think 5th Avenue in Manhattan or Glen Street near my home in Glens Falls, NY) would have been impossible if current parking requirements had been in place during their formative periods.

As a pedestrian and cyclist, I'm usually concerned with cars in motion. This book got me thinking about the stationary vehicles that surround me everywhere I go. Glens Falls recently installed a parking monitoring system on certain streets in order to gather data and better enforce existing parking laws. The monitored spots are unmetered, but the City took in over 50% more revenue from parking tickets in a recent eight month period compared to the same period the year prior. I wonder what Donald Shoup would think of these unmetered spots? Is the increased enforcement a step towards smarter parking or a money grab on the part of our city government?

I also know that Glens Falls has committed to developing a "Complete Streets" plan that will consider traffic patterns and the safety of non-motorists. A recent debate over the painting of a bike lane through a Glens Falls neighborhood echoed the fights described by Grabar: opposition to the plan was mostly concerned about loss of parking and curb access. Bikes and scooters, increasingly powered by electric motors, promise to reduce traffic and parking demand if communities are willing to invest in the infrastructure to make them safe and convenient alternatives to driving. Unfortunately, some of the changes that are needed (e.g., dedicated bike lanes that separate cyclists from traffic) will have to challenge the primacy of parking.

Grabar quotes a scientist who notes that our search for parking resembles animal hunting behavior. My "hunting" strategy is highly passive; I often park in the first spot I see within a half mile of my objective. My wife prefers (enjoys?) the search for a closer spot. Of course, I would rather cut out the car altogether by riding my bike, which I am usually able to lock up a few steps away from my destination.

A parking lot in Amsterdam, NL.

For a good interview with Henry Grabar about "Paved Paradise," check out this episode of The Gist podcast (interview starts at 6:05).


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