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Why the U.S. builds more three-car garages than one-bedroom apartments

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Anyone who drives knows the ecstasy of finding the perfect parking spot - you know, the one that's just steps away from your destination, safe from the scourge of the parking attendant, on the shady side of a street on a really hot summer day. It is an incredible high, but like any drug, it can be dangerous in excess. And in the U.S., according to a new book by Henry Grabar, we have an astronomical excess of parking. The book is called "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." And it's in part a catalog of all that we've sacrificed on the altar of parking - front porches, affordable housing, untold hours spent circling the block, hunting for a free spot. I mean, the list goes on. Henry Grabar joins me now. Welcome.

HENRY GRABAR: Thanks for having me.

SUMMERS: You know, one of the things that immediately jumped off the page for me when I was reading your book is the fact that, by square footage, there is more housing for each car in this country than there is housing for each person. And on its face, I have to say that statement feels incredibly problematic, but is it?

GRABAR: I don't think it's that surprising when you start to think about it. I mean, there are more - we build more three-car garages in this country than we build one-bedroom apartments. Almost every jurisdiction in this country requires parking as a part of every single building type. Whether you're building a school, an apartment building or an office or a restaurant, the law requires a certain number of parking spaces. So we have parking minimums in every jurisdiction in this country, whereas for housing, we often have maximums. We say, on this plot, you can only put one unit of housing. You can only put two units of housing. So the fact that we've ended up with a surplus of parking and a shortage of housing is no surprise. In fact, it's by design.

SUMMERS: Another thing that you pointed out in the book, an example that I just found fascinating, is that if the Empire State Building had been built to the minimum parking requirements of a modern American city, its surface parking lot would include 12 whole blocks. And that - I really find that relation between parking requirements and density fascinating. Can you talk about that a bit more?

GRABAR: Sure. If there's one thing that people take away from this book, I hope it's that parking takes up a lot of space, and it is very expensive to build. I talked to a planner who described it to me like this. Everybody comes to the planning department, and they have this project. And it's like an ice sculpture. And by the time we're done whittling it down to make sure there's enough parking, what you wind up with is an ice cube. And I think that neatly summarizes the distinction between pre-parking American architecture, which is ornate and interesting and fills the whole lot, and post-parking American architecture, which basically looks like a fast food restaurant surrounded by parking spaces.

SUMMERS: You walk through a number of examples in your book, but there's one that really fleshes out how concerns about parking can block development of, say, an affordable housing development. Can you tell us about The Pearl in Solana Beach, Calif.?

GRABAR: Yeah, so I read about this in the LA Times a couple of years ago. An affordable housing developer in Solana Beach, a suburb of San Diego, was trying to build a project for 10 families. And what happened over the course of a decade was this project was basically wrecked on the objections of local neighbors about a parking shortage despite the fact that the developer was going to rebuild all the parking on the site at great expense and provide a little additional parking as well for the residents. And what this project shows me is the way that parking has become this kind of third rail in American politics, right? It's not acceptable to get up at a community meeting and say, we don't want any poor people to live in the neighborhood. But if you get up at a community meeting, like this one in Solana Beach, and you say, we are concerned about the parking supply, well, that's a legitimate excuse.

SUMMERS: I mean, and we should point out that some of the people that you write about in this book - they did say these things explicitly. One said, we don't need more diversity in this neighborhood. We already have the Mexican apartments down the street. And it sounds to me like what they're talking about doesn't have a whole lot to do with parking at all. It's about race and class.

GRABAR: Yeah, I think people have many reasons that they object to affordable housing in their neighborhood. But what I think what is interesting about this Solana Beach project was despite the prejudices of the neighbors who objected to this project, what actually made the project fail was the requirement to provide parking and the lawsuit brought over the lost parking spaces. And Solana Beach is not alone. I mean, every suburb in America, every city neighborhood has a project like this, an affordable housing project that's been held up or slowed down or made more expensive or reduced to fewer units because neighbors are concerned about parking. There have been studies of this, and parking adds between 30 and $60,000 onto the cost of every new unit of housing that's created. So that is a massive drag on our ability to create new housing, especially affordable housing, where the bottom line on these projects is pretty thin and you really need to make every dollar count.

SUMMERS: And we should just point out, too, I mean, the Solana Beach project - it never happened. It never got built.

GRABAR: That's right. That's the tragedy of the Solana Beach project - 10 years of work for real people, low-income tenants who had been promised housing by the city, and it never got built because neighbors were too concerned about parking.

SUMMERS: What do you think that a world, that a country with better parking would look like? And what would it mean to the way that a person walks through the world - the way that they experience their communities, the way that they relate to their neighbors and the people around them?

GRABAR: The more parking you create, the more people drive. And the more people drive, the more parking you need to create. We have created this kind of vicious cycle of this sort of ruined urban environment in which it's impossible to do anything but drive. But there is another cycle. There is a virtuous cycle in which you create spaces with less parking, with parking that's not in front of the store but behind it, where residences are a little closer together, where streets are more walkable. And in an environment like this, it becomes possible not to drive so much. And reformers - they're not saying that millions of American households need to go car-free. I think they get it. America is a big country. You need to drive for a lot of things. At the same time, half of all trips in big U.S. metro areas, cities and suburbs together - half of all trips are under three miles. So that's a distance that doesn't necessarily require a car. It just happens to be that we've built this environment in which it's dangerous and unpleasant and difficult to get somewhere any other way.

SUMMERS: One thing that defenders of parking say is, look. The areas that are super-walkable and have really good public transit - well, they also tend to be really expensive. You got to be either really rich or really lucky to live there. So if you just start getting rid of parking in a neighborhood before you've built that walking infrastructure, you're going to be punishing people who do not have the choice not to drive. What do you say to that argument?

GRABAR: Yeah, I'm very sensitive to that critique. I think that's one thing that we've seen in the last couple of decades - is that these sort of parking-challenged neighborhoods which were slated for demolition in the 1950s and '60s have become some of the most expensive places to live in America. Now, you could say that's all the more reason why we need to ensure that those neighborhoods still have plentiful parking - to ensure that people who can't afford to live there can still drive there. But to me, free parking in an expensive, walkable neighborhood seems like a pretty lousy consolation prize.

I think the focus ought to be on creating more neighborhoods like those neighborhoods. Why are they in such limited supply? That's the question we should be asking ourselves. And the answer is because everybody who's building a new neighborhood is confronted with the obligation to provide thousands and thousands of parking spaces. We have effectively made it impossible to build more neighborhoods like Wicker Park, like Santa Monica, like Fort Greene. And it's no coincidence that those are some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. It's in part because they're so rare.

SUMMERS: Henry Grabar. His book is "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." Thank you so much for being here.

GRABAR: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(NOTHING BUT) FLOWERS")

TALKING HEADS: (Singing) Once there were parking lots. Now it's a peaceful oasis. You got it. You got it. This was a Pizza Hut. Now it's all covered with daisies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.