American Cities Are Haunted by Too Many Parking Spaces

Photograph by Tom Nagy/Gallery Stock

American car culture may be declining, but much of our urban infrastructure remains steadfastly centered around the automobile. Planning choices made in the heyday of car ownership may prove incompatible with a rising generation of consumers who seem remarkably disinterested in driving.

“In the ’50s and ’60s, cities did things like subsidize garage parking, and they condemned buildings so the lots could be used for parking,” says Norman Garrick, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Connecticut. Many, he adds, still require a minimal number of parking spots to be added for each new development. But it turns out that all the parking doesn’t pay off.

A pair of forthcoming studies by Garrick and several of his UConn colleagues examine the economic and sociological impacts of parking trends in six U.S. cities from 1960 to 2000. They conclude that some car-centric cities forfeit more than a thousand dollars per parking space per year in potential municipal revenues by using land for parking rather than more lucrative alternatives. The researchers also found that minimum parking requirements inhibit development and exacerbate traffic by placing incentives on car use rather than on walking and cycling.

The studies chronicle changes in Arlington, Va., Berkeley, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass.—all of which showed only modest growth in parking over the past 40 years—and Hartford, Conn., Lowell, Mass., and New Haven, Conn., where parking spaces were added with great zeal over that span.

In Cambridge, for example, parking increased 39 percent while usable building area—a term that indicates a building’s footprint multiplied by its height—increased 46 percent. In Hartford, by contrast, parking increased 158 percent while useable building area grew by only 27 percent. The differing growth patterns resulted from varying incentives: “In Cambridge, they tax parking at a higher rate than any other use,” Garrick says, “while in Hartford, they tax parking at a lower rate.”

Garrick isn’t sure how the cities settled on their different policies, but he says overemphasis on parking growth led to a decline in physical appeal. “When I came to Hartford 30 years ago, it was a much more attractive place,” he says. “You want cities where people are on the streets, where there are things to do, places to go. You don’t want a city that is a big office park.”

Parking-centric cities also sacrifice income. In all six cities studied by UConn’s researchers, land devoted to buildings provides at least 88 percent of tax revenue and sometimes as much as 97 percent; parking contributes very little. In other words, cities that turn themselves into car lots relinquish tax money in the bargain.

Hartford loses an estimated $1,200 annually per parking space, a subsidy of more than $50 million per year, according to Garrick. The city is no anomaly: “We pick on Hartford because it’s our state capital.” Cities such as Cambridge, where parking is kept in check and more heavily taxed, don’t lose money.

Garrick suggests that cities suffering from the Hartford syndrome revisit their tax incentives and minimum-parking requirements. He also recommends improving public transportation and installing bike lanes. Cars, he points out, take up more space than any other mode of transportation. “For each person, a car takes up 10 times more space than a bike, 15 times more than a train, and 30 times more than a pedestrian,” Garrick writes via e-mail. “Space equals money in one way or the other.”

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