“Parking explains the world” but it doesn’t have to, says the author of a new book on how the impervious surfaces of sprawling parkades boost flood risks, create heat islands, devour space better used for affordable housing, and might even contribute to one big city’s rat problems.
Policy-makers must recognize that contrary to public perception, the real parking problem is not a shortage but a surplus of parking spots, says Henry Grabar, a Slate staff writer and author of Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.
This is certainly true for Canada, where there are 3.2 to 4.4 parking spaces for every vehicle, CBC News reports, citing research by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research initiative at the University of Calgary.
Grabar says this superfluity owes to the fact that Canada, like the United States, has made driving the lynchpin of mobility. In many places, a car is “absolutely essential to hold down a job, get to school, to go shopping, to see your friends, and unless you have a place to park, you can’t get out of the car.”
Better public transit, and cycling and walking infrastructure, are crucial to freeing people from this ridiculous trap, Grabar says. Another key is densification, which would improve access to amenities like grocery stores.
Reducing the need for parking spots would also open up more options for affordable housing, he adds. In some cities, parking takes up valuable space in prime locations where added housing could boost density and equity. Grabar cites the example of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which has a parking lot nearly 11 times bigger than the actual arena. Everyone can park on game day, but when the Dodgers aren’t playing, it’s wasted space, CBC writes.
“If I ran the Dodgers, I would take that parking lot and I would build, like, 45,000 units of housing on it, because Los Angeles has a very severe housing crisis,” said Grabar.
In southern Ontario suburbs, a parkade for just 30 cars “can take upwards of 10,000 square feet, about six 35 x 50 residential building lots,” writes the Canadian motor website Driving. Building parking underground would solve the space problem, but construction costs for an underground parking space range from C$48,000 to $160,000 in a place like Toronto, CBC says. “That cost was being put on residents, making units less affordable.”
Many building professionals say developers can make new buildings more affordable and open up space for other amenities by reducing the space reserved for parking, which, as Driving writes, has a propensity to “inhale huge tracts of land.” An increasing number of municipalities have begun to allow new residential buildings with fewer parking spaces than the number of families they house.
But this more housing/less parking approach can face resistance, as it did in the Orléans suburb of Ottawa in February, where residents opposed a residential project because of the reduced parking allocation, among other reasons, reports Capital Current. The developer had convinced the city housing committee that the proposed 81-unit building would provide “much-needed affordable housing” consistent with the city’s objectives, and close to transit.
But locals opposed the plan when they learned that 20 units would have no onsite parking. One cause for concern was that the parking shortage could lead to vehicle overcrowding at a nearby park, they wrote in an online petition, adding that the proposal needed a “comprehensive risk management, traffic simulation or parking plan.”
The housing committee punted the application back to the developer and then approved it a month later with some revisions—but not before the federal Conservative Party’s shadow minister for housing Scott Aitichison had chimed in, calling the dust-up a case of NIMBYism, where “not in my backyard cowards” were perpetuating the housing crisis. More than 10,000 households are on the list for affordable housing in Ottawa, says Capital Current, with the wait expected to stretch as long as five years for some families.
In the U.S., too, there are ways that “cheap and convenient car storage exacerbates the housing shortage,” with more land allotted to car storage than to housing, Fast Company writes, citing Grabar.
In a dense place like New York City, pervasive parking can cause a slew of other problems. The city assigns most of its curb space—“an area equivalent to 52 Central Parks”—to parking, which has an impact on pretty much everything that goes on in the city, says Grabar, who grew up in Lower Manhattan.
Simply repurposing some of the city’s three million curbside parking spots could create space for proper containers to hold the trash piled onto sidewalks, thus helping solve its persistent rat problem.
And repurposing parking could create safer and cooler places for kids to play, while bringing better control over water flows in times of drought and flooding. “It could even help drivers kick their addictions to cars and avert climate catastrophe,” Fast Company adds.
“Cement is responsible for nearly 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of which goes toward the provision of parking,” the news story explains. “And all that pavement contributes to the loss of wetlands, forests, and other green spaces, a process that can release carbon into the atmosphere and reduce biodiversity.”
By contrast, depaving paradise—which would ultimately mean fewer cars on city streets—would reduce pedestrian fatalities, alleviate urban blight, and slash air pollution.
It would also help battle the urban heat island effect and make shedding water much easier. Writing about Houston, Grabar describes how two generations of heedless growth “have sealed a Belgium-sized section of Texas grassland beneath asphalt, concrete, and [heavily developed] land.” This wholesale replacement of permeable surfaces with impermeable ones proved catastrophic in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey “dumped more than 100 billion tons of water” on Texas.
Some older cities that have catered to car culture for decades now see parking—or enforcing a lack of it—as a way to address congestion. The Hague recently introduced a pilot scheme which will charge visitors a €50 (US$53) flat fee to park on its most popular streets.
“Residents have for years complained that they cannot find a parking space in the centre of the city,” writes the Guardian, adding that the one-year pilot will preserve existing parking spots for locals. Others will have to shift to other options, said Jurriaan Esser, spokesperson for the council that passed the pilot.
“We want the primary way of transportation to be your legs, and then the bicycle, public transport, and, last, cars,” Esser said.
Montreal is also putting a premium on parking—but singling out drivers of larger and heavier cars. It will cost SUV owners more than others to park in the Rosemont-La Petite Patrie neighbourhood. The borough’s mayor François Limoges said that’s justified by a “systematic” shift to larger vehicles that has caused the city to lose as many as 10,000 parking spaces since 2001.
Limoges explained that a RAM 150 truck takes the place of two Toyota Yaris cars on the street. He has also said he encourages those who must use a vehicle to opt for a smaller size—or carpool.