Parking has had a much greater effect on the urban life than we even realize. Although it’s not one of those things that first come to mind when thinking about the key features of a city, it is in fact one of the defining characteristics of modern infrastructure.

Our three-part series on the historical and cultural significance of parking will commence with an overview of how parking was born in the first place, how it quickly became an absolute necessity and how it has affected the way cities look like today. We will focus on the historical perspective of North America, reflecting the Western world’s overall changes.

As a point of reference for this part, we use the intriguing historical account Lots of Parking – Land Use in a Car Culture by Jakle and Sculle.

Mass production made automobiles cheap, and soon everybody had one

It all starts with industrialization. The second wave of industrialization saw the rise of the automobile as a means of getting places. As technology progressed, it became a luxury item that only few could afford. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, new manufacturing techniques, namely the assembly lines at Ford cut the price down and made the automobile a commodity available to all. The increase in car ownership speeded up industrialization and started to impact city structures.

Not only did the car become a convenience, it also became a symbol for freedom and made people’s everyday habitat much larger. Cities started to transform from pedestrian-oriented to vehicle-oriented, and living areas expanded as the scope of living was no longer restricted to right by the railroads. The need for parking was a natural consequence of the car becoming a household item.

Where to accommodate all those cars?

It is estimated that cars are only in motion 5 % of the time, and for those remaining 95 %, they are parked. Technically, cars need two parking spaces – one at the start of a drive and one at the destination. The term “to park” originally referred the placement of gun carriages. It was also used with the meaning “to stop and continue standing” and after WWI it became a standard term for the motionless car.

With the rise of motor vehicles became the need to accommodate them for all that time they were not on the road. People were moving in between the home and the workplace (a need that nearly doubled when women became a part of the workforce), as well as shops, doctor and leisure – and all of those places had to have a space to leave the car. And that required tremendous adaptation from the environment.

Parking, along with road networks, soon started to dictate new infrastructure, construction and land use in urban areas.  

The need to park changed both inner and outer city plans

Not only did residential areas spread outside city centers, but also services started to surface at city outskirts because people now had the ability to travel there.  Commercial complexes were built outside large cities and they revolved around massive parking lots. Parking became a cornerstone of suburban life – to live in the suburbs meant you needed to have a car, and to have a car meant you needed to park.

With the expanding scope of services and travel, the downtown became more and more modelled in the same way as the suburban as car driving citizens needed to be accommodated in city centers as well. Streets became wider to make way for curbside parking, and businesses made easy parking an appeal in their marketing. Parking lots started to take space within downtown districts too, often replacing old buildings. Parking garages eventually allowed for cars to be stored on top of each other for more efficient space usage.

Space devoted to parking slowly but surely took over more and more space, and continued to do so along with the growth of the urban centers and the ever-increasing number of cars.

Parking has become the epitome of the urban environment

Parking is one of the most prominent, and some argue that even the single most prominent, feature that shapes the urban environment. It has had a tremendous impact on the way cities nowadays look. It’s one of those things that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but is a huge defining factor and an indistinguishable part of modern city lives.

Parking has been and continues to be one of the driving forces in city transformation planning. As any industry, parking has evolved with new inventions always emerging to help manage the the growing need. The restrictions of parking space combined with the growing demand gave way to paid parking, and with that inventions for collecting parking fees.

In the next part of the series, we’ll take a look at how increased demand has challenged the industry and what tools have been used to try and solve it – and why solving the problems related to parking are a vital part of functioning city life.

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Main photo by “Gabe Rodriguez” from Unsplash/CC