Parking Policy and the Tragedy of the Common Sense | A review of Paved Paradise by Henry Grabar
Journalist Henry Grabar’s Paved Paradise explains why we poured bitumen all over the place, why it made so much sense to the people who did it, and why it was all so self-defeating
Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, by Henry Grabar
There’s a scene I often think about in Mad Men, where the Draper family are having a picnic in a beautiful, lush green park, and at the end of the scene, when they’re done, they get up and walk away — leaving their trash behind without a thought.
It’s shocking to us now, not simply because some arbitrary societal norm has changed (men used to wear hats!), but because the act is so obviously destructive and self-defeating. If everyone acted like that as a rule, there would be no beautiful parks for picnics in the first place.
The temptation with scenes like that is to stop at the level of chauvinistic historical voyeurism, and just wonder how we could have ever lived like that. How did people in the past tolerate not just littering but also the obvious, visible calamity of poisonous car smog in cities, for example?
The reason I think about that scene so often is to remind myself that it’s an opportunity to look in the mirror and think, are there things we’re doing now, that are equally destructive and self-defeating, that we’re equally indifferent to?
And what would it be like to become totally, inescapably aware of something ubiquitous like that yourself, at the same historical moment of everyone else’s total indifference to it? What would it be like now, to see someone desecrate a park Draper-style, and have people treat you like you’re crazy when you point out how obviously wrong it is?
Henry Grabar’s forthcoming book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World offers a bracing example of a self-inflicted blight of our times that’s at least as bad as literally trashing the world around us all the time, like we used to do: our approach to parking.
The bare facts he presents about parking — mostly in the US, though he does touch on parking issues around the world — are breathtaking. Here are just a few:
“By square footage, there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person.”
“By 1940, more than 80 percent of all traffic signs in American cities had to do with parking.”
“By 1970, 95 percent of U.S. cities with over twenty-five thousand people had made the parking spot as legally indispensable as the front door.”
“Land in Manhattan was the most valuable in the world, but it was free if you wanted to use it for just one thing: storing your car on the street.”
There are many, many more awful facts like that, when it comes to how we’ve approached parking.
One detail of parking policy that I dwell on personally is the material we’ve used to pave our world for storing cars everywhere: it’s bitumen, “a viscous form of petroleum mainly used as a binder in asphalt concrete”.
You know those bituminous tar sands you’ve heard about, being mined in Alberta? There’s some right outside your front door, if you’re interested in seeing what they look like. There are lakes of tar sands all around you, deliberate oil spills all over the place, everywhere, in the form of poured asphalt.
And we all know they’re mostly empty, most of the time.
It’s easy, when we get into a mood of exasperation about things like this, to give up at the level of an effectively rhetorical question when we ask, Why have we done this to ourselves?
Grabar answers this question thoroughly in his detailed account of the history of parking, and particularly, the imposition of parking requirements on property developers.
There’s the profit motive, of course: when people began moving to the suburbs, for example, downtown business owners lobbied to create more parking downtown, to draw shoppers back.
There’s wealthy homeowners who don’t want apartments built nearby, so they create onerous per-unit parking requirements that make building apartments unaffordable.
But the primary explanation of our flawed parking policy that stands out in Paved Paradise is in a sense psychological: the actual facts of parking simply aren’t accessible to everyday common sense.
Three examples from the book of this tragic fact stood out to me in particular.
First, take the seemingly obvious assumption that free parking is cheaper than paid parking.
The reasons that actually makes no sense at all were spelled out in Donald Shoup’s now-classic, perfectly-titled, 2005 book The High Cost of Free Parking. Grabar sets out in detail and with many concrete (sorry) examples the numerous ways Shoup proved free parking is actually very expensive, not just in money to build and maintain it, and in the opportunity costs it imposes (a whole book could be written on that topic alone), but also in our own personal time: a high proportion of the traffic that gets in our way, Shoup found, is just people trolling around for free parking.
Second, take the also seemingly obvious assumption that increasing pricing will decrease demand.
Here’s a quote from the letters section of the local paper where I live, from just a couple of weeks ago:
Can anyone at Victoria City Hall tell me how raising parking fees downtown will encourage more people to go there? Makes no sense.
I’m sorry for the merchants that are already struggling. Your city council is not looking out for you.
Makes sense, right? How could raising parking fees in a city’s downtown result in more people visiting it?
In fact, if you just charge something for parking, the downtown dynamic totally shifts - and it actually shifts in the favor of retailers. Fewer people trolling for spots means traffic flows better and more people actually do go there, since they’re less concerned about time wasted stuck in traffic.
And when people pay more for parking, they get their shopping done more quickly, meaning more customers can actually come to your store.
A third common sense assumption we have is that where there is an insufficient supply-demand ratio — signaled, typically, by loud complaints about there not being enough parking somewhere —that increasing supply enough will eventually satisfy demand.
But that’s also not true. Kind of like how it goes with freeway traffic, the more capacity you build for car use, the more people need cars.
What our common sense somehow doesn’t tell us is that all this vehicle-related infrastructure makes alternative ways of getting around and doing things without a car less possible. If there’s a giant parking lot in front of every building, for example, that spaces out buildings more and more, making a car an increasing necessity.
Setting common sense aside for a moment, one thing Grabar makes very clear is that there’s something else deeply psychological about parking. For example, as Grabar points out with reference to Joel Garreau’s 1991 book Edge City, at one point it became basically a law for American developers that “An American Will Not Walk More Than Six Hundred Feet Before Getting Into Her Car”.
But think about it: going to the mall is (or was) as quintessentially American as driving a car. And what do you do at the mall? What’s it designed for? Nothing if not for walking around. And yet people will actually spend time driving around outside the mall, looking for a closer spot, so they have to walk fewer feet — to make it to their walking destination.
We’re all crazy about this stuff one way or another. As Donald Shoup reportedly said in 2011, “I truly believe that when men and women think about parking, their mental capacity reverts to the reptilian cortex of the brain. How to get food, ritual display, territorial dominance — all these things are part of parking, and we’ve assigned it to the most primitive part of the brain that makes snap fight-or-flight decisions.” Yeah.
One of the ironies of parking policy that Grabar points out is that places with less parking and fewer cars are so much more pleasant than their alternatives, that walkable neighborhoods are the most expensive to live in. Indeed, they are so much more desirable to shop and walk around in, that they can become such huge attractions in their own right, that they create their own parking problems.
I may have missed it, but one aspect of parking that Grabar doesn’t cover in the book, is people who actively park for pleasure. Where I live, a little while ago the city administration put up some bollards on part of a beautiful little peninsula that juts out into the sea, to make part of it a place for walking, instead of dedicating the whole place to parking.
No joke, that 90 or so meter stretch of bitumen being pedestrianized became a red-faced hot-button issue for a certain constituency of people.
The fact that this beautiful piece of land was paved over as a parking destination in the first place, and that it has partially been transformed into a walking and cycling (and picnicking!) space now, speaks to how our concepts of progress and prosperity are changing.
As Grabar points out at the end of his book, we appear at long last to be entering a new phase of parking policy. Things like curb extensions are no longer revolutionary, and even blocking streets to vehicle driving and parking altogether is becoming more common.
The pandemic in particular, which took hold of the world while Grabar was working on the book, has opened up our eyes to the ways we could improve our public spaces.
I mentioned I’d address three challenges that parking presents to common sense, but thought I’d close on a fourth: none of the policies that professors like Shoup and journalists like Grabar are informing us about in their books are anti-car or anti-parking. They only seem that way until you understand that the popular common sense understanding of how things work, when it comes to cars and parking at least, is profoundly wrong.
Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, by Henry Grabar. Penguin Press, 368 pages. Due out on May 9, 2023.
This review was published on May 7, 2023, based on an advance copy of the book, which may differ from the finished book. If I’ve made any mistakes, or you do find any differences from the finished book, please comment!