Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mandatory parking requirements part 3

Well, here I was thinking no one reads my blog... safe in the solipsistic self-indulgence of publishing into the black hole of the Internet. And then I get this email from a fan who's been waiting with bated breath for the next installment in my oober-nerdy parking series.

My apologies. Where were we? Right--parking in back.

Okay, so putting parking in front is a non-starter if you want a real Downtown. What if we put it in back? If you’ve been paying attention to the previous posts, you should already be forming an answer to this one.

But we need to deal with it anyway because it’s a pernicious little meme that’s gotten out there: We can have parking, and a lively urban environment—just put the parking in back! You hear this a lot from people who self-identify as New Urbanists or neotraditional development people. I have nothing against New Urbanism—they are doing some good work and it is a damn sight better than what we’re used to getting.
But if you think you’re going to solve your parking-vs.-design quandary by putting the parking behind the building, you’re going to be disappointed. It stems from a desperate belief that we can have our cake and eat it too.

We can’t. Here’s why:

If you’re going to put parking behind the building, you need to get the cars in and out of there. That means you need to have space between your buildings. Now, right away this clobbers your small lots—they’re just wide enough for a two-way driveway as it is, and that’s what they become.

You’ve already broken up the street wall. Remember how that Main Street has this nice continuous street wall? This street will not feel like Main Street. It starts to get kind of an Alfred E. Newman gap-tooth thing going.

And of course, everything I said about parking lots in the previous section applies here too. You need 20’ of depth for the stalls, plus another twenty feet for an aisle.

One thing you notice is that your lot needs certain minimum dimensions to accommodate parking. Not just area, but linear dimensions. To handle a single-loaded parking area, the minimum dimension is forty feet. That’s what the third building from the left has—that lot is twelve meters or forty feet wide. And even then, it can’t make good use of its space. Half the frontage is taken up by the two-way driveway; three quarters of the lot is asphalt, with only one-quarter left for the building. And of that paved area, only one-third of it is useful.

The building on the far left has it somewhat better because it’s a big lot. It has enough depth to accommodate a double-loaded parking lot, and enough width to have a driveway, and still have some room left over for a building. That’s basically your best-case scenario, and he’s still only getting to build on about a third of his lot.

But the land economics are just ruinous. You have to buy land Downtown, which is always more expensive than out in the suburbs. You have to put money into two-thirds or three-quarters of the lot—paving, drainage, snow clearance—that isn’t directly contributing to your business. Your building gets relegated to a tiny corner of the lot.

And development can’t compete with the suburbs on these terms. If we start from the proposition that development must have parking, then Downtown cannot compete. There isn’t enough space. That space is expensive. It is encumbered by old lot fabric and a patchwork of owners. You can turn two-thirds of your Downtown into parking and you still won’t have “enough parking”—if by “enough parking” you mean a free or almost-free parking stall for anyone who wants it, any time, right next door to their destination.

What ends up happening is that the smaller lots become unviable—they’re carrying all this economic dead weight around--the buildings are abandoned, and eventually they’re condemned and torn down, or burned down by crack heads or insurance fraudsters. And then you’ve got a street with a couple of buildings, and a whole bunch of parking. Not even a whole bunch of parking, really, not compared to the Price Slasher out off the highway.

But, finally, you have enough parking. But you’ve only gotten there by turning your street into a wasteland. No one wants to be there, so of course there’s plenty of room to park.

Look, cars take up a lot of space. It’s never enough. We’ve covered half the continent with roads and highways and parking lots and yet there’s still traffic jams and you still can’t find a spot right next to the door. There’s no way around this.

[Edit, October 2015: There used to be a slide here that compared the amount of space taken up by a person to that taken up by a car, that was inaccurate. On the basis of a car taking up ten to twenty times the land space of a human being, it said this made it the equivalent of a hundred-foot-tall person. I since realized that the proper comparison would be with height varying with the square root of the area, so the proper comparison is something like a human to a twenty- or thirty-foot-tall giant.]

You can build to a human scale—the kind of environment that people will feel comfortable in—or you can try to build to the scale dictated by convenient parking. You cannot do both. There really is no middle ground.

Okay, one caveat—you can do both if you’re willing to build stacked parking structures. A lot of cities have done this—rich cities, or at least cities with a lot of rich people in them. But a stall in a stacked parking structure costs many times more than a surface parking stall—like, ten, fifteen, twenty times as much. Twenty thousand dollars per stall is not an unusual cost for stacked parking. So that parking is not going to be free, or cheap. Somebody is going to have to pay for it.

So as a general rule, parking garages are not a solution. Parking garages, generally speaking, are a very expensive way of pretending you can have both ample parking and urbanity.

In an upcoming post I'll get into the economics of all this.


  1. Interesting stuff! I can't wait to read the next instalment.


  2. I like this blog, personal problems in the past notwithstanding.

    Once you pointed out that you could always move down - dig underground.

    At the very least, why not have the entry/exit to the parking area on the side roads? Keep the frontage, in fact, eliminate gaps between buildings, but enter the parking through the side streets?

    In New York City they have parking lots with basically giant car jack lifts, allowing you to park three cars or so on one footprint in the asphalt.