How Much Potential Park(ing) Space is There Anyway?


Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Mark Clayton takes stock of the nation’s paved parking lots and asks "does America’s four-wheeled fleet really need all that extra elbow room?" This article comes on the heels of International Park(ing) Day, a one-day grassroots event in which urban dwellers all around the world transform metered, on-street parking spaces into pocket parks and public plazas as if to suggest that, in a crowded city, there might be better uses for publicly-owned land than storing privately-owned motor vehicles:

Nothing can match America’s love affair with the automobile, but a close second might be the parking space. They’re everywhere, wrapped around shopping malls, churches, truck stops — expanses of yellow- and white-striped asphalt as much a part of the American landscape as amber waves of grain or lighted billboards. Now, however, some researchers worry that the United States may have too many parking spaces.

They say it’s not worth the sprawl, polluted runoff, and heat generated by these vast lots of concrete and asphalt just to create more automotive resting stations by the Home Depot entrance or the Wal-Mart shopping-cart corral. Anyone who has circled and recircled an airport garage searching for an open spot might beg to differ. But a key problem is that no one really knows how much blacktop real estate is out there.

Enter Bryan Pijanowski, a land-use scientist at Purdue University, who is busy counting the nation’s parking spaces. He hasn’t gotten very far yet. Using sophisticated software, he and fellow researcher Amalie Davis count 355,000 off-street, nonresidential parking spaces in his home county of Tippecanoe in Indiana. Even that is an estimate based on aerial photos. Now, Dr. Pijanowski wants to expand his survey nationwide.

"This work is unique and important, quantifying something that’s not been quantified before," says Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, himself a parking guru widely recognized as one of the nation’s top researchers in the field.

If Pijanowski can finish his count, then researchers will finally determine whether the United States is suffering a parking surplus.

For Dr. Shoup, the issue is cost. Free parking, he says, doesn’t turn out to be so free. "We all pay for it, not in our role as drivers, but as residents, taxpayers, and customers," says Shoup, who documents the phenomenon in his book "The High Cost of Free Parking." Big parking lots hike building costs and get passed through to the consumer, sometimes through higher rents in their apartment buildings or bigger costs at their grocery stores. "Every place we drive and park free, we really pay for that parking as something other than as a driver," he says.

Photo: denizen8/Flickr

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    This is a great idea, and it would be wonderful to have something like this for New York. One use would be to show how much space is wasted on parking. Another would be to track the increase or decrease over time, and to identify parking that can be converted to more valuable uses.

  • “If Pijanowski can finish his count, then researchers will finally determine whether the United States is suffering a parking surplus.”

    I don’t think we need a count to determine that. If we compare the quality of auto-oriented and pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods, we can easily see that pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods with much less parking than the American average are more livable than the American average.

    It is an unfortunate modern habit to ignore this sort of qualitative question and instead rely on quantitative research, like this count of parking spaces. The quantitative research does not get at the real point.

  • Charlie D.

    The town I grew up in recently strengthened an ordinance that a business may only allow people to park in their lot who are customers of their business. This was in response to local businesses allow people to park in their lots to go to an amusement park across the street, but an unfortunate side effect is that a church was then no longer allowed to let seniors park there who were going on a bus trip when the church-goers were not using the lot. Thankfully, they are now rethinking this ordinance, but it just goes to show how backwards our thinking on parking is. Single-use parking just makes no sense. It’s a waste of space and generates unnecessary trips. When I was visiting, I caught myself parking at CVS and then driving literally 50 feet across the street to park at Dunkin Donuts. How silly!

  • Hilary

    Knowing the area being converted to impermeable surfaces should be used in tax assessments (e.g., to establish a higher rate as for additions that are heated are taxed differently from “porches”). Overall the information can enable the city set and meet storm water infiltration targets. It can be correlated with temperature data to show which neighborhoods are literally getting hot. Maybe there should be limits of impermeable surface in areas beyond which no building permits, road expansions, etc. can go afford without a “swap.”
    Good data is never wasted!

  • Hillary:
    Good points, but we have to go through all this analysis and policy formulation, only because people are not willing to make the same decision on qualitative grounds.

    Current parking requirements were originally based on quantitative studies of how much parking demand is generated by different land uses. Because we followed these quantitative standards rather than building livable neighborhoods, we are now forced to do quantitative studies of how much damage the parking is doing.

  • Spud Spudly

    It is amazing how much space is used up on vast parking lots in some suburban and exurban sprawl areas. One of the chief causes of this are local zoning and land use regulations that regulate the minimum number of spots a business must provide based on formulas such as how much square footage of retail space a store has (or how many seats a movie theater has, etc.). Those formulas are basically designed to accomodate the crowds that are expected on the day after Thanksgiving or the day before Christmas, when shopping crowds are ten times normal. But then you’re stuck with vast, unused parking lots the other 363 days of the year. You have to change the zoning regs that require these huge parking lots.

    The lots can also be made from porous materials. There are such things are porous asphalt and porous concrete that allow stormwater to drain right through, reducing pollution runoff and flooding concerns. I think NYC is going to try some of those out as part of its Jamaica Bay watershed protection plan.

    I don’t see how this is really a “free parking” problem though. We’re talking about private parking lots, no matter how vast they are, created on private property and maintained by private interests. People who shop at Walmart are probably aware that the price they pay in the store includes the cost of maintaining the parking lot outside.

  • Hilary

    Permeability makes a contribution to the water problem, but does nothing for the air. A parking lot should be required to include a canopy of trees and other landscaping.

    NYC creates a problem with the way it bills for water. We get bills for water consumption and sewerage, but only the water use is actually metered and then doubled, on the assumption that they’re equal. This means someone who irrigates a garden, which is a shared resource, pays a lot. The parking lot owner, who costs the city plenty (even federal fines), pays nothing.

  • Spud Spudly

    Actually, it’s more than doubled. The sewer part of a water/sewer bill is over 150% of the water part.

    And you’re right about the parking lots costing the city money — in two-thirds of the city the water collected in those lots goes into combined sewers and when it’s not raining gets treated in a sewage treatment plant. When it is raining the parking lot water adds to the overflows from combined sewers and increases the amount of raw sewage that gets dumped into the harbor. Also, the litter that gets washed down the drain in those parking lots often goes into the sewer system and then out into the harbor and then onto a beach somewhere. Or into a birds gullet. Ninety percent of the litter floating in the harbor started out as street litter somewhere.

  • Dan Icolari

    Here are some real numbers from my current water and sewer bills for the last quarter. They are for water and sewer use at two large semiattached 2-family houses.

    For Building A–which is smaller and has fewer occupants–the charge for 90 days of water use comes to $70; for sewer, $111.

    For Building B–which is larger and has a greater number of occupants–90 days’ water use comes to $143; sewer, $228.

    I hope you find these numbers useful.

  • Hilary

    The point is that the sewer figure is not metered; it is derived from the water usage. There is no incentive to conserve on that end.

  • Dan Icolari

    I think it was under Koch that metering was introduced and in time became the norm. Formerly, we received bills based on a bizarre system that used the width of a property (called ‘frontage’) to determine its owner’s water and sewer taxes.

    There are still problems with estimated versus actual readings (my current bills are based on one of each), but in general the system seems more straightforward.

    Hilary: Are you suggesting a metering system for soil-line discharges into the main flow of the sewer? If so, how would this work? I mean, how would actual use be monitored so it could be charged for on a more objective basis? Thanks.

  • Mitch

    One way to recover the cost of runoff from parking lots is to create a “storm water utility,” which can charge users by the square foot — at one rate for impervious areas, and another rate for pervious areas. In some areas, these rates might encourage landscaping and parking lots with porous pavement; in others, it might encourage density and smaller footprints for developments.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    At my co-op’s annual meeting last week, I learned that after switching from frontage to metered water and sewer taxes, we reduced our average bill by 36%, which is quite a lot of money. In other words, we were rewarded for not wasting water.

  • Hilary

    Angus, I’m still quite sure you’re only being metered for the water use, with the sewer fee estimated from that.

    As to how to do that, I’ve only heard of methods like the one Mitch is suggesting. It wouldn’t have to be limited to commercial property. Just offer tax abatements for green roofs and lawns.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Oh yes, Hilary, just for water use, but my point was that it’s still a step forward to allow people to save money by saving water.

    Sadly, it looks like we won’t be installing a green roof; our building isn’t strong enough to support one. If anyone knows of a way to minimize runoff without one, please let me know. We’ll probably be installing photoelectric sheeting, though.

  • Hilary

    Angus, How about channeling it to a rain barrel and using it to water your street trees? I did this using one of the olive barrels Greenthumb gives out. You can float a cut-off plastic gallon jug in it, or get fancy and stick in a spigot from a garden supply company. If I’m right, you should paint your roof white to reflect the sun. Again, I veer off topic. Sorry.

  • Hilary

    I guess rainy days d should be proclaimed “no shower days” and the really committed could not flush.

  • Ian Turner


    Government requirement to install parking spaces does constitute a subsidy. Even if the subsidy is ultimately paid for by the users of the facility, such regulations nonetheless serve to artificially inflate the supply, and thus the quantity demanded, of parking spaces and vehicle utilization.

    Imagine, for a moment, that all shopping malls were required to provide a free orange on request with any purchase. Would people stop shopping at malls? No. Would prices increase? Yes, but only marginally — oranges are not that expensive. Would the number of oranges produced, bought, and distributed for this purpose increase? Innumerably. Would purchase of other substitute food products, like tangerines and clementines decrease? For sure. Runoff and other agricultural issues aside, the only difference between the current regulatory environment and this hypothetical one is that using a parking space has considerably greater market externalities.

  • Spud Spudly

    It doesn’t meet the strict definition of the word subsidy. But it’s certainly a policy that promotes the use of automobiles, as well as the use of lots of concrete and asphalt. It probably keeps some snow plowers in business as well.

    Like I said earlier, you have to get to the zoning boards to change this stuff. I’d bet that the Walmarts and Home Depots of the world don’t like having to buy, build, maintain, light, clean, police and pay property taxes on such huge parking lots. Their planners have their own idea of how big a parking lot should be and it’s probably much different than what they’re required to build in a lot of places.

    You want to really see disgusting parking lots? Go down to Florida to western Palm Beach county where my in-laws live and check out one of the new Super Targets that exist every five miles. They pave over acres and acres of wooded swamp lands to build parking lots that are 90 percent empty almost every day.

  • Spud Spudly
  • angus and hillary, how can i contact you directly? i am exploring ways to promote water conservation at the co-ops in my neighborhood (including my own, which is still on frontage billing because our building manager claims it is cheaper for us).

    apologies to everyone else for using this public forum to make connections… 🙂

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    As far as I know, I’m the only Angus Grieve-Smith in the world. I’d be happy to share what I know with you, and get further info from my co-op if it would help.

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