Society featured

How parking ate North American cities

May 2, 2023

Forty-odd years ago when I moved from a small village to a big city, I got a lesson in urbanism from a cat who loved to roam. Navigating the streets late at night, he moved mostly under parked cars or in their shadows, intently watching and listening before quickly crossing an open lane of pavement. Parked cars helped him avoid many frightening hazards, including the horrible danger of cars that weren’t parked.

The lesson I learned was simple but naïve: the only good car is a parked car.

Yet as Henry Grabar’s new book makes abundantly clear, parking is far from a benign side-effect of car culture.

The consequences of car parking include the atrophy of many inner-city communities; a crisis of affordable housing; environmental damages including but not limited to greenhouse gas emissions; and the continued incentivization of suburban sprawl.

Paved Paradise is published by Penguin Random House, May 9, 2023

Grabar’s book is titled Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. The subtitle is slightly hyperbolic, but Grabar writes that “I have been reporting on cities for more than a decade, and I have never seen another subject that is simultaneously so integral to the way things work and so overlooked.”

He illustrates his theme with stories from across the US, from New York to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Charlotte to Corvallis.

Paved Paradise is as entertaining as it is enlightening, and it should help ensure that parking starts to get the attention it deserves.

Consider these data points:

  • “By square footage, there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person.” (page 71; all quotes in this article are from Paved Paradise)
  • “The parking scholar Todd Litman estimates it costs $4,400 to supply parking for each vehicle for a year, with drivers directly contributing just 20 percent of that – mostly in the form of mortgage payments on a home garage.” (p 81)
  • “Many American downtowns, such as Little Rock, Newport News, Buffalo, and Topeka, have more land devoted to parking than to buildings.” (p 75)
  • Parking scholar Donald Shoup estimated that in 1998, “there existed $12,000 in parking for every one of the country’s 208 million cars. Because of depreciation, the average value of each of those vehicles was just $5,500 …. Therefore, Shoup concluded, the parking stock cost twice as much as the actual vehicles themselves. (p 150)

How did American cities come to devote vast amounts of valuable real estate to car storage? Grabar goes back to basics: “Every trip must begin and end with a parking space ….” A driver needs a parking space at home, and another one at work, another one at the grocery store, and another one at the movie theatre. There are six times as many parking spaces in the US as there are cars, and the multiple is much higher in some cities.

This isn’t a crippling problem in sparsely populated areas – but most Americans live or work or shop in relatively crowded areas. As cars became the dominant mode of transportation the “parking problem” became an obsession. It took another 60 or 70 years for many urban planners to reluctantly conclude that the parking problem can not be solved by building more parking spaces.

By the dawn of the twenty-first century parking had eaten American cities. (And though Grabar limits his story to the US, parking has eaten Canadian cities too.)

Grabar found that “Just one in five cities zoned for parking in 1950. By 1970, 95 percent of U.S. cities with over twenty-five thousand people had made the parking spot as legally indispensable as the front door.” (p 69)

The Institute of Transportation Engineers theorized that every building “generated traffic”, and therefore every type of building should be required to provide at least a specified number of parking spaces. So-called “parking minimums” became a standard feature of the urban planning rulebook, with wide-ranging and long-lasting consequences.

Previously common building types could no longer be built in most areas of most American cities:

“Parking requirements helped trigger an extinction-level event for bite-size, infill apartment buildings …; the production of buildings with two to four units fell more than 90 percent between 1971 and 2021.” (p 180)

On a small lot, even if a duplex or quadplex was theoretically permitted, the required parking would eat up too much space or require the construction of unaffordable underground parking.

Commercial construction, too, was inexorably bent to the will of the parking god:

“Fast-food architecture – low-slung, compact structures on huge lots – is really the architecture of parking requirements. Buildings that repel each other like magnets of the same pole.” (p 181)

While suburban development was subsidized through vast expenditures on highways and multi-lane arterial roads, parking minimums were hollowing out urban cores. New retail developments and office complexes moved to urban edges where big tracts of land could be affordably devoted to “free” parking.

Coupled with separated land use rules – keeping workplaces away from residential or retail areas – parking minimums resulted in sprawling development. Fewer Americans lived within safe walking or cycling distance from work, school or stores. Since few people had a good alternative to driving, there needed to be lots of parking. Since new developments needed lots of extra land for that parking, they had to be built further apart – making people even more car-dependent.

As Grabar explains, the almost universal application of parking minimums does not indicate that there is no market for real estate with little or no parking. To the contrary, the combination of high demand and minimal supply means that neighbourhoods offering escape from car-dependency are priced out of reach of most Americans:

“The most expensive places to live in the country were, by and large, densely populated and walkable neighborhoods. If the market was sending a signal for more of anything, it was that.” (p 281)

Is the solution the elimination of minimum parking requirements? In some cases that has succeeded – but reversing a 70- or 80-year-old development pattern has proven more difficult in other areas. 

Resident parking on Wellington Street, South End, Boston, Massachusetts. Photo by Billy Wilson, September 2022, licensed through Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0, accessed at Flickr.

The high cost of free parking

Paved Paradise acknowledges an enormous debt to the work of UCLA professor Donald Shoup. Published in 2005, Shoup’s 773-page book The High Cost of Free Parking continues to make waves.

As Grabar explains, Shoup “rode his bicycle to work each day through the streets of Los Angeles,” and he “had the cutting perspective of an anthropologist in a foreign land.” (p 149)

While Americans get exercised about the high price they occasionally pay for parking, in fact most people park most of the time for “free.” Their parking space is paid for by tax dollars, or by store owners, or by landlords. Most of the cost of parking is shared between those who drive all the time and those who seldom or never use a car.

By Shoup’s calculations, “the annual American subsidy to parking was in the hundreds of billions of dollars.” Whether or not you had a car,

“You paid [for the parking subsidy] in the rent, in the check at the restaurant, in the collection box at church. It was hidden on your receipt from Foot Locker and buried in your local tax bill. You paid for parking with every breath of dirty air, in the flood damage from the rain that ran off the fields of asphalt, in the higher electricity bills from running an air conditioner through the urban heat-island effect, in the vanishing natural land on the outskirts of the city. But you almost never paid for it when you parked your car ….” (p 150)

Shoup’s book hit a nerve. Soon passionate “Shoupistas” were addressing city councils across the country. Some cities moved toward charging market prices for the valuable public real estate devoted to private car storage. Many cities also started to remove parking minimums from zoning codes, and some cities established parking maximums – upper limits on the number of parking spaces a developer was allowed to build.

In some cases the removal of parking minimums has had immediate positive effects. Los Angeles became a pioneer in doing away with parking minimums. A 2010 survey looked at downtown LA projects constructed following the removal of parking requirements. Without exception, Grabar writes, these projects “had constructed fewer parking spaces than would have been required by [the old] law. Developers built what buyers and renters wanted ….” (p 193) Projects which simply wouldn’t have been built under old parking rules came to market, offering buyers and tenants a range of more affordable options.

In other cities, though, the long habit of car-dependency was more tenacious. Grabar writes:

“Starting around 2015, parking minimums began to fall in city after city. But for every downtown LA, where parking-free architecture burst forth, there was another place where changing the law hadn’t changed much at all.” (p 213)

In neighbourhoods with few stores or employment prospects within a walking or cycling radius, and in cities with poor public transit, there remains a weak market for buildings with little or no parking. After generations of heavily subsidized, zoning-incentivized car-dependency,

“There were only so many American neighborhoods that even had the bones to support a car-free life …. Parking minimums were not the only thing standing between the status quo and the revival of vibrant, walkable cities.” (p 214)

There are many strands to car culture: streets that are unsafe for people outside a heavy armoured box; an acute shortage of affordable housing except at the far edges of cities; public transit that is non-existent or so infrequent that it can’t compete with driving; residential neighbourhoods that fail to provide work, shopping, or education opportunities close by. All of these factors, along with the historical provision of heavily subsidized parking, must be changed in tandem if we want safe, affordable, environmentally sustainable cities.

Though it is an exaggeration to say “parking explains the world”, Grabar makes it clear that you can’t explain the world of American cities without looking at parking.

In the meantime, sometimes it works to use parked cars to promote car-free ways of getting around. Grabar writes,

“One of [Janette] Sadik-Khan’s first steps as transportation commissioner was taking a trip to Copenhagen, where she borrowed an idea for New York: use the parked cars to protect the bike riders. By putting the bike lanes between the sidewalk and the parking lane, you had an instant wall between cyclists and speeding traffic. Cycling boomed; injuries fell ….” (p 256)

A street-wise cat I knew forty years ago would have understood.

Photo at top of page: Surface parking lot adjacent to Minneapolis Armory, adapted from photo by Zach Korb, August 2006. Licensed via Creative Commons BY-NC-2.0, accessed via Flickr. Part of his 116-photo series “Downtown Minneapolis Parking.”

Bart Hawkins Kreps

Bart Hawkins Kreps is a long-time bicycling advocate and free-lance writer. His views have been shaped by work on highway construction and farming in the US Midwest, nine years spent in the Canadian arctic, and twenty years of involvement in the publishing industry in Ontario. Currently living on the outermost edge of the Toronto megalopolis, he blogs most often about energy, economics and ecology, at

Tags: building resilient cities, car culture, cities