Today's question:

My city, like many midwestern American cities, has a love affair with parking. Nearly every development comes with a giant free-standing parking garage that is usually built on a major street, right at the curb, often with no pedestrian interaction of any kind. Any time someone makes an argument against such structures, the response from city leaders and developers is usually, "you are crazy, we need more parking for our businesses to survive, it's progress, it helps bring people downtown."

While I understand the need for some parking in our downtown, considering our city is spread out and few actually live there at this time, at some point I fear that all the parking will actually do more to hinder progress than promote it. There is a streetcar in development here and people talk about making places more walkable, but still most everyone demands that parking be built. Which is crazy to me, because why would anyone use the streetcar if they can just drive from place to place and park easily? So my question is, how can I, as a citizen, and others like me, make a case for better parking garages or less parking? What is to be done about this conundrum?

- Pondering Parking


Oh my! So much to respond to in what many may consider a simple issue: that we must have adequate parking or no one will come. Donald Shoup takes 800 pages to cover this issue fully, but I'll do my best to answer it here.

Financially, the return on investment for storing cars is much less than just about any other use that could go in a downtown area, yet this use is considered necessary, often mandatory.

I think you'll have the most success arguing against additional parking if you make the financial case for why it's robbing our cities of wealth.

Let me lay this out: To construct a parking garage costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per parking space, not including the land which can be quite expensive in a downtown area.  Then there is the maintenance and operation costs. The average parking space requires over 300 square feet to store a car while the car is not being used, and then you also have the space not being used when the car is here instead of there, or there, or there, since under this logic, there must be a space wherever and whenever the car goes somewhere.

300 square feet would be a pretty nice executive office, a small apartment or even a tiny house. But in this case, it is being used to warehouse a car that is not in use. Financially, the return on investment for storing cars is much less than just about any other use that could go in a downtown area, yet this use is considered necessary, often mandatory. Then we have the loss of a welcoming street and storefront if this is built at the edge of the street and sidewalk, which they often are. There's nothing in a parking garage to attract people, only cars.  

And we can expand this argument to consider all the expenses of auto-orientation in our communities: If a city is going to base all of its development around the idea that everybody will get there through single-occupancy vehicles, then the city will require a large amount of infrastructure to deal with the cars (in both moving and storing them).

It would be valuable to invite your local leaders to consider the total cost of having an auto-dependent city (with many parking garages) vs. the total cost of having a walkable city. Typically the walkable city comes out as the better cost option; especially when you start to include costs to time, health, environment, and value lost when building infrastructure that does not directly support human activities (i.e. parking garages).

One challenge with changing our parking paradigm, though, is the transitional period.  When a downtown has been built around auto-dependence, how do we change the rules without significant disruption to downtown, likely including business failures?  Every downtown is unique, so there is no single answer. I think that's a challenge worth facing, though, if we want to turn our cities into Strong Towns instead of economically failing municipalities.

How would you respond to this question? Jump in with your answers in the comments!

Note: R. Moses is not meant to be professional engineering advice nor should be relied upon as such. Consult your own technical professional before proceeding with your own project.


Related stories