The low price of freed parking

Toyota, Woven City
Toyota
Toyota, with the architectural firm BIG, is planning an entire city designed for better and more sustainable mobility.

The 270 million vehicles in the United States are parked over 90 percent of the time. There are far more parking spaces than vehicles. How many spaces? The data is imprecise. There could be 500 million parking lot spaces and 1 billion spaces on streets. Add parking in home garages, carports and driveways, and another estimate is 2 billion parking spaces. Many cities allocate more space for cars than people and that includes cities desperate to create more housing.

Many wasted spaces are being put to better use, thanks to forward-thinking city executives, urban planners, corporate facilities planners and innovative thinkers.

More space for sustainable mobility

San Francisco converted parking spaces on congested corridors to transit lanes, allowing commuters to reach work faster on transit than by driving. The transition was not expensive; the city painted the lanes red. To move commuters even faster, dedicated busways on busiest routes are being upgraded to bus rapid transit.

Some cities also allow private multi-passenger shuttles access to such bus lanes. What’s more, converting parking spaces into pick-up/drop-off spaces for Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services would reduce the current practice of double parking that is clogging streets. Goods delivery also benefits when more parking spaces are converted to loading zones. 

Transit can be wonderful, but if you’re late for work or an important gathering, you need to cover the last mile(s) as quickly as possible. 

San Francisco, transit lane
Empty bus and tram stop, passenger shelter with yellow roof near a red transit-only lane on Market Street in San Francisco downtown.

Last-mile solutions include bike sharing, scooter memberships and a plethora of one-, two- and three-wheel solutions that currently bring chaos to some sidewalks and streets. Converting street parking to micromobility lanes could help solve this growing problem.

Parking spaces are being upgraded to docks for bicycle parking, bike sharing and parking areas for various forms of micromobility. Some of these areas could include outlets or wireless inductive charging for e-bikes and e-scooters. Taxi queues at airports, convention centers and hotels could provide wireless charging for electric taxis and shuttles.

Toyota, with the architectural firm BIG, is planning an entire city designed for better and more sustainable mobility. At the base of Mount Fuji in Japan, Woven City (6-minute video) plans for three types of street use: fast vehicles only; lower-speed micromobility; and a park-like promenades for pedestrians only. These three street types will weave together to form an organic grid pattern.

For examples of street designs that make all forms of mobility safer and effective, check out Smart Growth America.

The benefit of sidewalks and plazas

For billions, walking is integral to getting to work, seeing family and friends and enjoying healthy exercise. For the growing cohort who do not own cars, walking is the primary form of mobility. Yet, sidewalks can be too narrow or non-existent.

Street parking can be converted to wider sidewalks that invite people to walk, gather and enjoy the beauty of newly planted trees, plazas and parks (or at least parklets). Entire streets can be converted to car-free for a parade, special event or forever.

Imagination seems to be the only limitation when considering better uses for parking spaces. Kaiser Permanente hosts farmers markets at some locations where sidewalks have been expanded into mini-plazas. This leading healthcare provider is encouraging healthier diets and helping local growers in the community.

A housing revolution?

Los Angeles is learning that with 1.2 million riders daily on its Metro transit system, plus micromobility and ride services, there is reduced need for parking spaces.

With that in mind, in 2016 Los Angeles voters approved a $1.2 billion bond to create new housing for the homeless. Construction for homeless housing is planned on several existing city-owned parking lots, with 24 city-owned lots to be offered for low-income developers. The low-income housing is attracting both strong support and fierce opposition.

On the East Coast, the Boston Planning and Development Agency awarded Millennium Partners the rights to build a 30-story tower on a city-owned parking lot. The development will include 45 apartments for low-income renters and 107 condos for lower and middle-income homeowners.

Corporations and developers rethink parking

Corporations and developers are transforming parking structures into offices, apartments, mixed-use developments, urban farms, warehouses and other better uses. New facilities are developed near transit centers, so that expensive excess parking spaces are avoided.

Thousands of corporate facilities are where land prices are high. Covered parking can cost $25,000 to $50,000 per space. By building near transit and/or providing employees with shuttles and buses, millions could be saved in parking costs. Many employers also offer corporate bus services, vanpooling and car sharing. The Internal Revenue Service allows employers to offer each employee up to $270 monthly for qualified transit, ridesharing or parking.

The Garage, Northwestern University
The Garage
The Garage, formerly a parking garage, is startup central at Northwestern University.

Google is locating a new campus in San Jose, California, near the hub of commuter rail, multiple transit centers and a planned high-speed rail station. The location appeals to employees in an area where competition is intense for talent. Locating near rail and transit also saves Google millions through reduced need for expensive parking.

Netflix has leased over 600,000 square feet of LEED Gold office towers in Los Angeles from Hudson Pacific Properties. The towers replaced parking lots and are walking distance from Metro lines for the digital media talent that prefers urban transit. In the 13-story office tower, two floors are for parking, but the parking is designed so that it can later be converted to added offices or digital media production.

The Summit is a 426,000 square-foot hotel and conference center that is an adaptive reuse of a former parking lot in Cincinnati. At Northwestern University in Chicago, a parking garage was converted to an 11,000 square foot on-campus startup aptly named The Garage.

Corporate leaders want fewer parking spaces as they locate new facilities near transit and in locations with high walkscores. Unfortunately, in some cities, builders are required to increase facility costs with mandated parking. 

Donald Shoup, author of "The High Cost of Free Parking," recommends that cities eliminate requirements for developers to build off-street parking. He suggests that cities charge for street parking based on demand and time of use. 

Cities need to rethink building codes and parking. The burdens of parking vary dramatically by city, reveals a study by the Research Institute for Housing America (automatic download PDF).

For example, the report documents that there are 1.85 million parking spaces in New York City and 1.6 million in Des Moines, burdening Des Moines with the land use and cost of 19.4 parking spaces per household versus 0.6 in New York City. Guess which city has more people walking and taking transit to work?

Reducing free parking is not without controversy. Cars and parking are everywhere because many people find them convenient. The growth of Mobility as a Service (MaaS) reduces the need for parking spaces, but in the short-term Uber and Lyft have brought more congestion and emissions to some cities.

In my article about the future of mobility, I discuss the transition to electric and autonomous transportation, and policies needed to reduce congestion.

As more people choose MaaS instead of car ownership, we will see more of our 1.5 billion U.S. parking spaces put to better use. Unsafe streets will be transformed into broad walkways, greenways and thriving neighborhoods. We can celebrate the corporate and government leaders who are rethinking locations and replacing obsolete parking structures with offices, apartments, and mixed-use development.

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