It's not just an immense waste of space — it's killing the economy
You can learn a lot about what a company or society values by how it allocates resources. A business that cares about collaboration will invest in software and HR policies to help encourage connection between employees. A society committed to housing and feeding its people will ensure plenty of land is dedicated to homes and farms. Using that criterion, it's not a huge leap to conclude that American businesses and society believe cars are twice as precious as people.
Parking takes up a huge amount of space and money in the US. A typical office building allocates about 175 square feet per employee but allocates double that, nearly 350 square feet, per parked vehicle. According to the builder WGI, the average parking stall in the US costs $27,900 to build, more than the cost of many new compact cars. In places where land is at a premium, like Silicon Valley, prices can skyrocket to more than $85,000 per stall.
Parking and related car infrastructure are often overlooked but exact huge costs in capital and make goals such as increasing affordable housing, reducing greenhouse gasses, and improving urban quality of life more elusive.
The money and resources dedicated to parking could be used for other purposes, but breaking our country's reliance on parking has been difficult. And while many people and businesses are focused on new car tech such as autonomous driving or electrification, this focus on improving the cars themselves ignores the bigger problem of where to put them.
The stunning costs of parking
When I was a project executive for transportation in Google's real-estate division, I was tasked with figuring out how to move tens of thousands of people more efficiently and in a way that minimized land use. But as I researched the best ways to achieve those goals, everything kept pointing back to one key problem: parking.
What I discovered was truly bewildering: Some estimates have put the number of parking spots in the US at a mind-boggling 2 billion, more than six for every registered car in the country. These spots are thought to take up as much as 14,000 square miles nationwide, about the same land area as Connecticut and Vermont combined.
That's a lot of land that could be better used in other ways. And in talking with real-estate developers, architects, and city planners, we learned it wasn't only a Google problem. Nearly anyone trying to build anywhere across the country eventually runs into the parking problem.
Accommodating cars enacts a huge toll on many aspects of our society, including on housing. A study published in 2018 by the federal government's Government Accountability Office found that parking added an average of $56,000 in costs per unit to multifamily housing in California and Arizona. Parking accounted for about 27% of per-unit costs, regardless of whether the resident owned a car or not. UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs has estimated that carless renters, primarily lower-income residents, pay nearly half a billion dollars annually for parking they don't use and are effectively subsidizing for others. Building housing becomes that much more difficult solely because of the cost of accommodating cars that many residents don't even have.
There are tax burdens as well. Because property taxes are based on not only the value of the land but any improvements made to it, parking lots pay less in property taxes than an office building, apartment complex, or store on the same piece of land would. Repurposing parking for business purposes such as retail would increase tax-generating activities, helping fund vital services and create jobs. Toronto provides a perfect example of the value created by shifting these spaces: Researchers estimated that when restaurants turned curbside parking spaces into patios for diners during the pandemic, they generated revenue that was 49 times the parking fees that would have come from the same space.
A car-focused culture, including all the infrastructure required for using a car, has significant environmental costs. Transportation in all its forms was the No. 1 contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions in the US in 2020 — but the emissions come from much more than vehicles' tailpipes. Parking lots use energy- and carbon-intensive materials such as concrete and asphalt. A 2011 study by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley, found that for many vehicle trips, the environmental cost of the parking spot exceeded the environmental cost of using the vehicle.
But the largest — and least quantifiable — cost of America's insatiable need for parking is in quality of life. Not only is time lost idling in traffic, but parking and congested streets take up land that could instead be used to build denser, more livable, pedestrian- and bike-friendly multiuse developments that combine housing, offices, open spaces, entertainment, and retail. The parking takeover has made it a steeper climb to achieve the dream of the so-called 15-minute city, where a different kind of freedom can replace the myth that cars somehow equate to personal liberty.
Better transportation, better land use, better cities
Efforts are underway to finally rid America of its unhealthy devotion to parking. One of the first dominoes to fall has been minimum parking requirements, or rules that force developers to build an arbitrary, defined amount of parking instead of adjusting parking levels to meet the needs of the market. California enacted statewide restrictions on minimum parking requirements this year, while Buffalo, Portland, and a slew of other cities have eliminated these often wasteful requirements.
Removing parking requirements and making other common-sense changes to parking rules, such as reducing free downtown parking, is a promising start, but truly breaking the country's reliance on parking will require broader — and more challenging — changes. American cities will need better urban design and transportation options that can make them more livable. The kinds of cities that are highly desirable to many people are dense enough to provide easy access to housing, employment, recreation, entertainment, and healthcare, with plenty of parks and open spaces, but not so overly dense that they feel crowded.
In a few fortunate American cities, but more commonly in Europe, you can enjoy a coffee at an outdoor table, attend a lunch meeting, and go shopping all without needing a car. A key to making that happen in more cities is providing transportation to make these locations easily accessible. But our reliance on cars is making that almost impossible to achieve.
Very dense neighborhoods can flourish where mass transit is available. Neighborhoods without access to quality mass transit, though, generally rely on cars. As these neighborhoods are built up, residents bring more and more cars. This results in wider roads and more parking, pushing things farther away from each other, making everything less accessible. There's a huge gap between the ideal density for cars and the ideal density for mass transit.
Many urban reformists, city planners, and architects call this the Goldilocks density. While definitions vary, the Congress for the New Urbanism describes it as a district that has economic, social, and civic resources within a 15-minute travel time. Unfortunately, it's also referred to as "the missing middle" because of its scarcity in the US.
The difference in economic activity that achieving ideal density can unlock is astounding. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that dense clusters of commercial buildings, stores, and housing — which can be found in sections of Plano, Texas; Springfield, Massachusetts; and New Orleans — took up only 3% of city land but accounted for 40% of jobs. The study also found that achieving ideal density increased economic prosperity for all and particularly benefited people of color and low-income households, who tended to be more likely to live near such sections.
Removing cars as well as the parking and other infrastructure they use would free up land for more housing, jobs, commercial activity, leisure, and recreation. As part of a recent analysis, my team determined that surface, elevated, and underground parking took up 60% of the existing land in San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf district — and that percentage is not unprecedented in other dense urban neighborhoods. But we're closer to breaking the parking fever than many people realize. A study by the Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that nearly two-thirds of the trips Americans took in 2021 were less than 5 miles. Mobility technologies such as e-bikes and elevated cableways can enable better access to commerce, services, and mass transit by moving people without adding to congestion.
Creating prosperous, sustainable cities starts with realizing that accommodating and encouraging car dependency affects not only residents' pocketbooks but their environment and their quality of life. Turning that realization into action — developing better walkable, bikeable neighborhoods and increasing access to convenient transit options — could help end Americans' overreliance on cars and make life better for everyone.
Jeral Poskey is a former project executive for transportation in Google's real estate division, and current CEO of Swyft Cities in Mountain View, CA.