They’re gray and rectangular, and if you put all 2 billion of them together they would cover an area roughly the size of Connecticut, about 5,500 square miles. Parking lots have a monotonous ubiquity in US life, but a growing swath of cities and states now refuse to impose more on people, arguing they harm communities and inflame the climate crisis.
For many years, local governments have required the construction of parking lots as part of any development. These measures, coupled with the wide highways that cut through largely minority neighborhoods and the endless sprawl of suburbia, cemented cars as the default transportation option for most Americans.
But starting in January, California will become the first U.S. state to ban minimum parking. discontinue use in areas with public transit in a move Governor Gavin Newsom called a “win-win” to reduce planet-warming emissions from cars, as well as help alleviate the lack of affordable housing in a state that has lagged behind in the construction of new homes.
Several cities across the country are rushing to do the same, with AnchorageAlaska; Cambridge, Mass.; And Nashville, Tennessee, all recently eased or scrapped requirements for developers to build new parking lots. “These minimal parking spaces have helped kill cities,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School, who accused political leaders of making city centers “look like they’ve been hit by bombs” by filling them with parking spaces. .
“Getting rid of the parking minimums is an extraordinary step. It’s one piece of the climate policy puzzle,” said Wagner, who stressed that transportation is the single largest source of global-warming emissions in the United States. “Now there’s a major rethink going on, which is good for cities and for families.”
Climate activists and transit advocates have seized on the previously esoteric issue of parking minimums, posting airplane Images on social media demonstrating large prime urban areas dedicated to parking and pushing city councils to promote denser communities with more opportunities to walk, cycle or take buses and trains rather than simply driving.
Cities like Buffalo, New York; and Fayetteville, Arkansas reduced parking minimums a few years ago and have reported a surge in activity to transform previously derelict buildings into shops, apartments and restaurants. The developers previously found such work impractical due to the need to build car parking areas, in many cases many times larger than the building itself.
Nashville is part of a new wave of cities hoping to do the same. “It’s about the climate, it’s about walkability, it’s about reducing traffic and everyone’s need for a car,” said Angie Henderson, a member of the Nashville Metropolitan Council, who proposed the parking changes for the city’s downtown area .
Henderson said she was struck by how a dental office in her district was forced to build a 45-car parking lot, requiring trees to be cleared from a nearby hillside, despite only having space for a handful of patients.
“Nashville is very car-oriented and making that change is a challenge,” added Henderson, who admitted some residents are complaining about a lack of parking and have been unnerved by the changes. “We are not eliminating cars. It’s not some sort of parking armageddon, but it’s going to start to change the market.”
“Land use policy is inextricably linked to climate policy and I think at a local level this is the main way we can help with that,” he said. “So much good climate work is being done in cities, which is exciting. There is now real momentum around parking policy.
Compulsory construction of parking lots may seem like a harmless, even common-sense way to accommodate the about 280 million cars carried around by the Americans. Facing an audience accustomed to navigating car-centric cities with large parking lots at amenities from shopping malls to concert halls, cities typically have zoning laws requiring at least one parking space per constructed apartment, one parking space per 300 square feet of retail development, and one parking space per 100 square feet for restaurants.
These stipulations have helped materialize huge portions of America: There are three to six parking spaces for cars in the United States, totaling up to 2 billion, according to some estimates. In much of the United States, more space is devoted to parking than housing: in Jackson, Wyoming, for example, parking spaces outnumber homes 27 to 1, the search found.
That ratio is much lower in places like New York City, but the largest and most transportation-friendly metropolis in the United States still allows large swathes of public street space to be free storage for cars—there are almost 4 million parking spaces in New York, and drivers only have to pay to park in 3 percent of them.
In California, home to the state’s first minimum parking limits, the amount of land set aside for automotive use is even more astounding. In the San Francisco Bay Area, which has become increasingly expensive to live in due to a shortage of new housing, there are around 15 million parking spaces, with one-fifth of the region’s incorporated land devoted to parking lots and roads. In Los Angeles County, about 40 percent of the land is dedicated to the handling and storage of carswith the parking lot alone taking up a space equivalent to nine Manhattans.
“There’s been this decade-long process of emptying the cities, essentially to favor the rich and those who drive everywhere in the suburbs,” Wagner said.
“Driving has been subsidized with this negative regulatory intervention in the market through parking minimums, which has helped make housing less affordable and is killing the climate. It’s staggering to think how long it took for the tide to turn, but it’s turning.”
The primacy of the car, or more precisely the SUVs, is still largely unchallenged in the United States. Vehicle sales skipped last yearand while Joe Biden’s administration has proposed removing some highways to reconnect separate, previously walkable communities, the federal government is still channeling more than $300 billion into new highway construction and is not involved in the hyperlocal issue of parking.
Some cities still reject the idea of even relaxing parking minimums. In March, the Miami city commissioners reinstated parking minimums, with Manolo Reyes, one of the commissioners stating, “This is not a pedestrian and bicycle city.” Reyes also complained that people were parking outside his home due to a lack of available parking spaces.
Even in California there is still resistance to change, with restaurants near the beaches of San Diego said recently they will need to replace any ‘lost’ parking spaces if they organize outdoor street dining.
But the growing backlash against entrenched minimum parking limits is providing a sense of vindication to longtime advocates like Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California who writes a seminal 2005 book about how free parking is destroying the fabric of urban life by deterring developers from building large blocks of affordable homes while encouraging traffic congestion.
“What has finally been understood by many people is that we have a minimum of parking and a maximum of accommodation, which means we have too many cars and too little accommodation. We have things the wrong way” Shoup said.
“Why should people pay high prices for houses but cars pay nothing for some of the most valuable land on Earth? Do you think McDonalds would build a lot three times the size of its restaurant if it didn’t have to?
“It’s such a house of cards, a pseudoscience,” Shoup said of the parking minimums. “The more you look at parking minimums, the more you realize they are ridiculous. People are finally hearing and waking up to this.