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January 13, 2012

Paved Paradise?

TrafficWhat if the states of Rhode Island and Delaware were paved over with a parking lot? 

It seems crazy, but one MIT professor estimates that at least that much land area has been devoted to parking in the United States.  That’s roughly 500 million parking spaces covering 3,500 square miles of asphalt.  Others estimate that the number of parking spaces in the U.S. is actually much higher, saying that there are at least that many parking spots that go empty at any time of the day or night.   

Thinking another way, in the U.S., we’ve built more than one and a half empty parking spaces for every single person in the country - even the ones who don’t drive.

Clearly, America’s parking is not condensed into just two states.  It can be found sprawling across the country, taking up tracts of land in urban, suburban, and rural settings alike. In urban settings, parking lots eat up valuable land and encourage people to drive in to work from farther away (like the suburbs,) reducing the city’s tax base. 

In financial terms, building a parking garage isn’t much better.  The typical garage costs $10,000-$25,000 per space, and one garage in Mankato, MN, comes in at a whopping $41,000 per parking space, funded at least in part with taxpayer dollars. 

Isn’t there a better use of our money?

Instead of spending the cost of a new car just to build a parking space, that money could be used to create infrastructure that revitalizes our cities, creates public spaces that people want to be in (who wants to hang out in a parking lot desert?), and makes room for people to have better choices for how to get around. 

Bike laneThe cost to build a bicycle lane, for instance, ranges from $5000-$50,000 per mile (compare this to building a highway at $2-$74 million per lane-mile.)  For the $3.2 million Mankato spent on a parking garage, the city could have built as many as of 640 miles of bike lanes.  Those would have been great to have when the city hosted Minnesota’s 2nd annual Bicycle Tourism Summit last November.

Creating better transit, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure gives people transportation options and encourages condensed development.  If people have a convenient option to walk, bike, or take transit, then fewer trips will be taken by car, meaning less oil use and less carbon and smog pollution. 

So why do we have so much parking, anyway?  Parking is both an outcome and a cause of an oil-dependent, car-focused transportation system.  Here’s how:

Cars are only in use about 5% of the time; the rest of the time they need to be parked somewhere.  The little bit of time people do spend driving is because our infrastructure encourages automobile use.  Even if you only use your car 1 hour a day, it has to be parked somewhere for the other 23.  Building a road means building parking at either end (and often along the side too). 

Coupled with sprawling highways are city zoning laws, which often require minimum parking for any new development, even if there’s already enough parking nearby.  More parking encourages more driving – if you build it, they will come.  People won’t drive to a place if there is nowhere for them to leave their car once they arrive, and will think twice about driving if they have to pay for parking at the end of their trip.  

The costs of parking have to be paid by someone; often it’s in the form of invisible subsidies.  For example, a parking space might be “included” with the rental of an apartment whether or not the renter owns a car; the renter is subsidizing the cost of building that parking space.  There’s an active movement to “unbundle” parking, thus painting a more realistic picture of the price of parking.

Parking lots can get in the way of better transportation alternatives.  Most of the time, they are empty, creating expensive wasted space and using up funding that could otherwise go toward multi-modal transportation improvements, giving people real choices about how to get around.  Instead of continuing to subsidize the automobile, we must invest in convenient transportation options that are cleaner and healthier for everyone. 

Americans can’t move beyond oil if we’re stuck in a parking lot.

-- David Loss, Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign

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