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Curbs Aren't Just for Storing Cars

Howard Yaruss

June 14, 2023

A new book rethinks our tired parking paradigm

A new book rethinks our tired parking paradigm

Why do cities look the way they do? Steel, reinforced concrete and the elevator allowed them to grow higher; mass transit and highways allowed them to grow wider. These developments led to countless public policies such as zoning, building codes, housing programs and tax incentives aimed at controlling and influencing that growth. Urbanists have studied how each of these policies explains the current shape of our cities in the same way physicists have studied how gravity, dark matter and electromagnetism explain the shape of our universe. Both, however, have come up short in being able to explain much of what we actually observe. Henry Grabar’s new book, “Paved Paradise,” helps narrow that gap for our understanding of urban centers.

The greatest strength of “Paved Paradise” is that it fundamentally changes the way readers will look at the city. Jane Jacobs made us see that thriving cities depend on mixed uses and street life, not grand, abstract ideas from urban planners. Grabar makes us see that our current parking policies are not something ordained by nature, but rather represent a choice we have made and are continuing to make — one that detracts from city life. For example, the twin walls of parked cars flanking most New York City side streets mean that one double-parked delivery truck can totally block traffic, that the mountains of trash (what New Yorkers have taken to calling the “rat buffet”) are forced onto valuable sidewalk space, and that other uses, such as playspace for children, local gardens or community activities, are rendered impossible.

It doesn’t have to be that way. As Grabar points out, prior to the 1950s, car owners were required to garage their cars overnight and streets accommodated playing children, pushcart vendors and neighbors congregating. As if turning so much of our public space into parking were not bad enough, the fact that the vast majority of these spots (97% according to UCLA parking expert Donald Shoup) are free causes them to serve as long-term car storage rather than as parking for business patrons or delivery vehicles. 

Grabar successfully demonstrates parking policy’s huge, and often ignored, effects on cities and the lives of the people who live in them. Much of the book is devoted to discussing several people’s involvement with parking policy and the enormous effect it has on them and their communities. We meet would-be developers of affordable housing who cannot make the numbers work because of the expense of complying with parking minimums. We meet residential and commercial developers who are forced to build more parking than anyone wants due to standards based on some dubious outdated research, resulting in higher rents for their tenants. We meet a variety of people who suffer frustration, wasted time and sometimes physical danger due to the fact that free and underpriced curb parking causes too many drivers to seek too few spots.

Grabar successfully demonstrates parking policy’s huge, and often ignored, effects on cities and the lives of the people who live in them.

These profiles also highlight the ripple effect often arcane parking policies have on the lives of city dwellers. For example, parking minimums not only deter affordable housing development, but also cause housing, as well as commercial development, to be less dense due to the added space a developer needs to devote to parking. Since underground parking is almost always much more expensive than surface parking, parking requirements exacerbate sprawl, diminishing walkability and street life — qualities needed for successful cities. Grabar writes about the kind of late 19th-century architecture that many people love, but that would be illegal to build today because of these mandates.

Another example of the wider effects of parking policies is how underpricing curb space not only makes parking difficult, but creates traffic, pollution and hazards for pedestrians as drivers hunt for parking. It also hurts businesses that would benefit if customers could easily and conveniently park, do their business, and leave. The growth of online shopping has increased these problems exponentially as delivery vehicles are forced to double (or triple) park to do their business, blocking whole traffic lanes and creating an obstacle course for pedestrians. Underpricing curbside parking also deprives cities of needed revenue to improve public amenities, including public transportation. Grabar notes the irony that the easier and cheaper cities make parking, the harder they make it not to drive — in other words, to have the funds and the space to make the city more accessible by mass transit, foot and bicycle. For example, Grabar cites a 2019 Daily News opinion piece I wrote arguing that New York City could afford to make all of its mass transit totally free if it charged an average of $6 per day for each of its curbside parking spots.

Drivers’ expectation of ‘convenient, available and free’ parking is virtually impossible to meet since cars take up a lot of space and underpriced curb space ensures that demand will outstrip the supply of convenient and available spots.

Given all of the harmful effects of our parking policies, Grabar explores why so many cities, including New York City, still have them. For example, he speculates cities may underprice curb parking to offer a consolation prize for people who are priced out of desirable urban neighborhoods. These people may not be able to afford to live in great, dense, interesting, walkable neighborhoods, but at least in theory they can store their car there for a nominal or no charge while they visit them.

The reality is that drivers’ expectation of “convenient, available and free” parking is virtually impossible to meet since cars take up a lot of space and underpriced curb space ensures that demand will outstrip the supply of convenient and available spots. The false consolation prize of a free or low-cost parking spot reveals a paradox: current parking policies frustrate drivers’ expectations of easy access to vibrant urban neighborhoods, but make the development of new dense neighborhoods impossible.

Many Americans flock to Europe and marvel at vibrant streets filled with strolling pedestrians, restaurant and café seating, performers, attractive public spaces and other amenities that make urban life so alluring. If we want American cities to look more like that in the future, we have to give up the idea of “convenient, available and free” parking today. Unfortunately, change is difficult since people have a hard time envisioning a different and better use for our streets. “Paved Paradise,” an entertaining and insightful book, makes that vision a bit easier to see.