Sunday, September 24, 2023

How Americans’ obsession with parking has shaped our streets and cities

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Policies put in place to ensure our ability to park easily anywhere and everywhere have quietly and profoundly shaped almost every element of the human landscape, contends author Henry Grabar.

Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World — featured recently on Fresh Air With Terry Gross and in the New Yorker takes a deep dive into how the United States has allowed its obsession with storing automobiles to undercut walkable communities, affordable housing, and the fight against climate change.

But Paved Paradise is not a screed against cars or driving. Instead Grabar analyzes how midcentury American ideas about parking policy and design have warped priorities and made it harder to build communities that allow us to do anything other than drive.

This interview with Grabar has been edited for concision and clarity.

Since the 1950s, America has been designed to accommodate convenient, available and free parking — a combination expected for no other good. How has that affected how we live?

There are two big consequences: More parking incentivizes more driving. More parking creates urban environments where it’s difficult to walk, bike or use transit.

There’s a study of Philadelphia that looks at different types of grocery stores. It turns out that even if the stores have the same amount of parking, if the parking is located behind the store instead of in front — so the store door comes right up to the sidewalk — more people will walk to the store, and fewer people will drive.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia has 2,172,896 parking spaces. So how come you’re still circling the block?

That shows the extent to which people will read an environment full of parking as one where they should drive.

Then there’s parking’s effect on housing, which is that it makes it impossible to build many of the traditional beloved typologies that characterize old American cities. [Parking] is not only expensive to build, but it also takes up a lot of space and makes it impossible to build your classic Philadelphia rowhouse.

Society Hill with parking requirements? Forgot about it.

Many Philadelphia politicians see robust parking requirements as a way to protect constituents from the effects of new development. What has happened in cities that abolished those kinds of laws?

In the last five years, city after city and even some states have begun to revisit these rules. We’re starting to see what happens when developers have a choice. They don’t always just tell tenants to figure it out and park on the street, which is what many neighbors fear. That does happen sometimes. But it turns out most of the time developers still build parking. But they often build less than the law would have stipulated, which makes sense because most residential garages are rarely full, and in fact, they are often significantly overbuilt.

You highlight some ways the pandemic helped people think differently about parking, such as using street space for outdoor dining. But Philadelphia has undone many of those changes, even as transit use is way down. So that may have been a hopeful trend two years ago, but what about today?

I’ve seen a lot of the retrenchment you’re talking about in a lot of places. But I do think that during the pandemic people at least got the idea that this space does not need to be used for parking. Drivers have successfully clawed back that public space, but I think the realization that something else could happen there is still in the imagination of lots of people who didn’t have it there before.

With respect to transit, this is a point where I feel extremely pessimistic. Most American transit systems are designed to serve the needs of downtown office workers. When they disappear, your transit system suffers.

When the trips downtown get replaced by trips between neighborhoods — people going shopping, to a restaurant, to the gym — the transit system does not serve those trips well. Transit systems are not designed to make it possible to live without a car. They’re designed to reinforce land values downtown and permit a density of jobs and people without being choked by traffic.

Transit agencies need to rethink their mission as being about helping people live without cars rather than trying to reinforce downtown centrality in the metro area. That’s a matter of both thinking spatially about where the trains and buses go, but also when they run. Anybody who’s tried to take transit on Saturday or Sunday, knows that it’s much, much less convenient than it is at 9 a.m. or 5 p.m. on a weekday.

You write that reducing parking availability or raising the price increasingly falls on the backs of working class people. As some inner-city neighborhoods become more highly valued — largely because they are walkable — that means lower income people are pushed to places where they have to drive. How do you mitigate that?

We have a severe shortage of housing in this country, and by restricting who can live in the city, or in a suburb, we push those people into houses that are further and further away with less access to jobs and amenities where they have to drive more and more. That, in turn, produces more carbon and more pollution and places more and more demand on our fossil fuel needs. So there is this larger imperative to make it possible for more people to live in cities.

At a certain point, it becomes a political decision. For a long time, we have let the right to park supersede the right to live someplace. What’s more important?

And a positive cycle can be unlocked as an area gets denser. A denser neighborhood will support more jobs. It will support more amenities and more shops and more restaurants. All the things that people drive to now, in a city that’s denser and more populous, they will become closer and easier to access without a car.

What does that look like in Philadelphia, which has a very different income mix from other more walkable American cities?

Philadelphia is unusual in that it is the poorest largest city in the United States. There’s a more convincing argument there to be made for some sort of equity consideration about how the people who have been parking on the street for a long time deserve some kind of protection from encroachment from new neighbors.

That whole argument looks totally different when you’re in a place like lower Manhattan or San Francisco, and people make exactly the same argument except they just have so much money and so much money locked up in their real estate assets. Maybe that means that in San Francisco, and in New York, you just tell those existing residents to shove it.

But in Philadelphia, you accommodate them by making sure that they don’t feel like they’re being priced out of their neighborhood and making sure they have access to parking going forward.

How would that work?

One thing you could do is issue parking permits to those people and grandfather them in. You essentially say, this parking belongs to you, you have a right to it, and even perhaps your permit to the space is a tradable asset. Some new resident who moves into the neighborhood who isn’t permitted to park on the street might be able to buy that from you one day. And so not only are you guaranteed to still have a spot on the street, but you have an investment in the neighborhood filling up and becoming a busier and more lively destination.

You could only sell enough permits so that no block was ever more than 80% sold or no neighborhood was ever more than 80% sold. You sold enough permits that you would make sure it was going to be pretty easy for the people who live there to park. It’s not that complicated. You just say: Do you live in this neighborhood? We’re gonna sell X number of permits for X amount of money. Come and get ‘em. And then you stop selling them.

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