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From Paved Paradise, which will be published next month by Penguin Press.

Parking psychosis is a regular feature of American life. The former NFL safety T. J. Cunningham was killed over a parking dispute at a Denver-area high school. In Las Vegas, Shane Pacada died of a bullet to the chest in a fight over a parking space. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., a man was charged with attempted murder for shooting a neighbor who had parked in his spot. Twenty-eight-year-old Thomas Rodriguez was killed in Dallas after an argument over a parking spot. All of this took place in February 2019.

These fits of rage are eruptions of a common urge that is also shared by non-homicidal drivers. They are expressions of the same fear that rises into view anytime our parking comes under threat, whether it’s in the neighborhood lot or at the curb in front of your house. It’s not hard to grasp what makes parking a fixation: without a place to park, you can never get out of the car. A parking space is nothing less than the link between driving and life itself, the nine-by-eighteen-foot portal beyond which lies whatever you got in the car to do in the first place. Every car trip must begin and end with a parking space, and in no uncertain terms. Whoever said life was about the journey and not the destination clearly never had to look for a place to park.

I once missed an entire summer afternoon at the beach because I refused to pay for parking. While I hunted for a spot, my passengers (wisely) took the ferry without me. We expect parking to be immediately available, directly in front of our destination, and most importantly, free. It would be unimaginable to hold any other good or service to the same standard.

But the forces of time, space, and money conspire in such a way that no thriving place can meet more than two of these three needs. Free and convenient but not easily available? That’s street parking in any big-city neighborhood. Convenient and available but not free? That’s the ferryboat parking lot I left in a huff. Free and available but not convenient? That’s where I parked when I missed the boat. It is the expectation and pursuit of all three parking qualities that leads us into parking psychosis.

Many of us have brushed against the threat that undergirds a parking claim. In Hawaii, you might see a spot marked with an upside-down bucket labeled “kapu,” a word borrowed from the ancient Hawaiian system of rules governing forbidden acts. Kapu violations are no longer capital offenses, but still worth taking seriously. In Chicago, “dibs” is in effect after a snowstorm, the implements of which might include a chair, a piano bench, a wheelchair, and all manner of nativity figurines. In my head I’ve always imagined the message is that you or your car might be attacked with the object being used to save the space.

The significance we assign to good parking in our personal lives is surpassed only by our ignorance of its systemic consequences. Parking is integral to the way things work and yet persistently overlooked. It determines the size, shape, and cost of new buildings, the fate of old ones, the patterns of traffic, the viability of mass transit, the life of public space, the character of neighborhoods, the state of the city budget: in short, every aspect of our spread-out environments in which it is virtually impossible to live without an automobile. In our quest to make it as easy as possible to park we’ve made it awfully hard to do anything else.

The need for a perfect parking space has shaped the country’s physical landscape. It has become the organizing principle of American architecture, making our designs bigger, uglier, and farther apart, from the parking-first design of the strip mall, to office towers sitting atop their garage pedestals, to the house itself, in which the garage is often the largest room.

What’s more, in many municipalities, there are laws requiring every building to include parking. These prevent us from creating more housing—especially affordable housing—because parking costs so much to construct and takes up so much space. If the Empire State Building had been built to the minimum parking requirements of a contemporary American city, the surface area of its parking lot would cover twelve blocks. In the Seattle area, parking makes up 10 to 20 percent of the cost of construction of multifamily buildings and drives up apartment rents by 15 percent.

Anybody who wants to build a small apartment building in the United States must first confront a multivariate financial geometry problem that begins with how many parking spaces can fit. The size, quantity, and shape of the housing follows from there. Sometimes, with just one parcel, it’s hard to make anything work at all. Buy the lot next door and you could unlock some economies of scale—like a driveway with stalls on each side. Buy four and—well, most small-time developers couldn’t afford four, even if they could find four adjacent properties. Parking is the immovable object at the heart of neighborhood architecture.

As a result, we have simply stopped building small buildings. Parking requirements have helped to trigger an extinction-level event for bite-size, infill apartment buildings like row houses, brownstones, and triple-deckers; the production of buildings with two to four units fell more than 90 percent between 1971 and 2021.

The apartments that do get built are clustered in megastructures whose designs are dictated by parking placement. One popular model is the “Texas donut,” in which a ring of apartments encircles a five- or six-story parking garage (this is the type of building you see in the cool neighborhoods of growing cities). Another is the “parking podium,” like Chicago’s corncob Marina City, in which the housing sits atop the parking.

Requiring parking spaces is essentially levying a tax, one that drives up the cost of new homes and stops a countless number from being built at all—precisely in the neighborhoods where it is possible to live happily without a car. Parking requirements for new buildings function as a protection racket, forcing new residents to pay for something that old ones get for free on the street and do not want to share. More than half of baby boomers, a group that tends to dominate local politics, say that free parking is more important than affordable housing in their neighborhoods. This anxiety leads the way to Malthusian thinking about cities: when the impact of new neighbors is measured out in parking spaces, every place starts to look crowded.

While there are still some corners of this country where parking is worth fighting for, in most of the nation the fight was over decades ago. Parking is plentiful. The country builds more three-car garages than one-bedroom apartments. More square footage is dedicated to parking each car than to housing each person. By some estimates, there are as many as six parking spaces for every car. It is this sea of parking, in which destinations bob like distant buoys, that renders mass transit, biking, or walking difficult and dangerous.

The grayness of a city where it’s easy to park is embedded in the word parking itself, which once referred to the patches of greenery, tiny parks, that sprang up curbside. Now it describes the opposite: the lifeless blacktop. Our cities are full of moonscapes used to store cars. In Los Angeles County, parking now occupies two hundred square miles of land. As a single parking lot it would form a square of asphalt stretching from LAX to Sherman Oaks to Pasadena to Downey. Or, for non-locals, a three-story garage the size of Washington, D.C. And this in a place where people routinely complain about how hard it is to find parking.

A world that wasn’t organized around parking would allow us to find our feet. It seems clear that most people would like to be able to leave the car behind once in a while. One reason that Americans retain such nostalgia for college is that it was the only time in our lives when so much was within walking distance. We take our vacations to places where we can get out of the car—Charleston, Manhattan, Miami Beach, Rome. Housing prices reflect the desirability of such destinations, making anything but a brief stay off limits to all but a few.

Without parking baked into our streets and architecture, how many more people could live in walkable places like these? How many car-dependent places, freed from parking laws, could grow into neighborhoods where people could ride bikes? Where a family with three cars could get by with two, and a family with two cars might manage with just one? In that world, it would be easier, not harder, to find a spot, and much easier to live in a place where you would not need to drive quite so often. Kids could walk to school and adults to the grocery store. In a world with better parking, there might be fewer places to park, but in place of those old parking spots would emerge a city so much richer and fuller and fairer that we would not think twice about the one we had lost.

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April 2023

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