I’m going to start this post with an argument: there are too many parking spaces in the U.S. Too many parking spaces? Sounds strange, right, considering that half of this blog is dedicated to discussing the difficulty of finding even one. There is a real issue, however, that has to do with dedicating too much space to parking.

The problem is that while parking lots are absolutely everywhere, a lot of them always stand empty. That translates into a whole lot of wasted space. Why are they empty? Why are there so many? And what could be done about it?

In the United States, infrastructure is defined by parking

In the States, car ownership, driving and parking have been a huge factor in the way cities have come to be. Cities were developing at the time when car ownership was getting more and more common, and the infrastructure responded to the needs of the anticipated increase in driving. Today, urban centers are characterized by huge surface lots that emerge next to shopping complexes and residential areas. (This in contrast to Europe, where infrastructure is old and parking has had to go underground and to multi-storey garages because of the scarceness of land).  

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As it happens, this kind of building strategy also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Take Los Angeles – a city built solely for cars, with the consequence that you actually kind of have to have a car to get around. And when everyone has a car, the city has to be run on the conditions of cars. It’s a vicious cycle, and has led to the situation we’re in right now.

Parking is all over the place – literally

So, parking dominates the landscape in the United States because there was a need, and there was land. As a consequence, a tremendous amount of surface is taken up by lots and spots – surface that could be used for other things.

The reality today is that there is a staggering amount of space dedicated to parking: it’s estimated that in some cities, one third of the surface is taken up by parking facilities. Surface parking lots take up up to 4400 square kilometers. There are 8 parking spaces per car. The estimates for the total number of parking spaces varies from 100 million all the way to 2 billion, but it’s often said to be around 800 million. That’s more than twice the number of people in the whole country.

If that seems like a lot, consider this: several studies show that around a third of parking spaces in metropolitan areas are always empty. Instead of being packed, there are millions and millions of parking spots standing idle day in and day out. The oversupply is huge. And although obviously not all of it is surface parking, it’s safe to say that there are way too many empty parking lots.

It’s clear that while parking is a convenience issue, it’s also a space issue. How did we end up having that much pavement with white rectangles on it?

When it comes to parking spaces, no one seems to know how many is enough

Parking is being managed with the idea that it should be available where it’s needed, and there are a lot of parking spots to ensure that’s being accomplished. (And yet, ironically, the biggest pain with parking is finding an available parking spot.)

When parking is built, something called the minimum parking requirements are applied. They are rules that define how many parking spaces need to be available per each building built. The problem is, those numbers vary and are not based on a standard, because there really isn’t enough clear information on how many spaces different facilities need. To sum it up in the words of our go-to parking expert Donald Shoup: “Where do minimum parking requirements come from? No one knows.”

The inconsistent requirements lead to the situation where there’s just too much parking available. In a Chicago research on residential parking use, it was found that a third of the parking was empty even at night (when it should most likely be full), and that adding more parking units decreased the overall use of the spaces. The findings show that a “one size fits all” principle for parking spot numbers just doesn’t work.

How many parking lots could be changed to skate parks?
How many parking lots could be changed into skate parks?

All that space for parking is that much less space for living

If there was merely parking per demand, the oversupply could be released for other use. Those empty spaces didn’t need to exist, if minimum parking requirements reflected the actual need of drivers. And if information about parking patterns was collected more efficiently, it could also be put into good use in renewing the minimum requirements.

If that was achieved, the excess space could be used for anything: green areas, apartment buildings, skate parks, playgrounds. Even if they were not replaced, they could be used for community get togethers: festivals, flea markets or concerts.

Ok, it’s not all bad: there are already projects where unused parking spaces have been turned into parks, or art spaces for example. However, for as long as surface lots are maintained “just because,” they mostly just stand there alone and unused.

Taking back the surface lots with smart parking solutions

We could talk a whole day about the environmental issues parking lots create, which are plenty and should not be forgotten. Or the costs – one parking space costs around 4000 dollars on average. This post is, however, dedicated to discussing the fact that they take up so much space – and for nothing.

The space issue is yet another dimension of parking that could be improved with smart solutions. Parking apps, data and real-time traffic management – digital solutions are once again the key. Gathering information and optimizing the use of parking lots would help to get a better understanding of how many parking spaces is actually enough.

There lies huge potential in reclaiming those forgotten and unoccupied spaces. Right now it’s very much a guessing game and a result of stiff regulations when it comes to the number of parking spaces. And so far, it’s been too high.

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Main photo by “Roger W“, text body photo by “Jeff Turner” from Flickr /CC