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How parking impacts everyday lives beyond cars

ABC News

(NEW YORK) — For some people, a parking spot is a nightmare and for others it’s a status symbol tied to their homes and vehicles.


Slate reporter Henry Grabar, who wrote the book “Paved Paradise How Parking Explains the World,” however said that that piece of concrete or a spot inside a garage has wide ranging impacts on the environment, health, and even policy.

He spoke with ABC News Live about what he found in his research.

ABC NEWS LIVE: All right. Right off the top, people are going to say, why did you write a book about parking? Why should it matter to us?

HENRY GRABAR: Well, I’m a reporter, so I spent a lot of time looking into stories about housing, about transportation, about the environment, infrastructure, architecture, all these subjects. And it seemed to me that whatever the question, the answer was always parking. Which is to say, cars have obviously had an enormous effect on the American landscape. The car spends 95% of its time parked. There’s more land used for parking in this country than there is for housing.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And I read some reviews of the book that I want to just showcase here. “Parking is the primary determinant of the way the place you live, looks, feels and functions.” And also this one, “A parking space is nothing less than the link between driving and life itself.” So in simple terms, explain why parking is so central to the lives of everyday Americans.

GRABAR: Well, because we live in a country where almost all of us have to drive almost all of the time to get wherever we want to go. So when I say a parking spot is the link between driving and life itself, what I mean is you can’t do whatever you set you set out to do in the car until you can park. You can’t get out of the car until you can find a parking space. So, of course, parking functions as a kind of third rail in American politics.

ABC NEWS LIVE: And you do have some funny little stories, anecdotes in there about a man who called 911 in Utah because he can’t find a parking spot [and] a lady who lost 11 pounds because she didn’t want to lose her parking spot, and so she walked everywhere instead. You also talk more seriously, though, about how there have been crimes and murders committed because of parking. How did we get here to that extreme?

GRABAR: Well, again, we live in a place where most of us are dependent on parking. So to some extent, I’m not surprised that people have become so emotional about this subject. At the same time, the degree to which we prioritize great parking sometimes at the expense of everything else means we’ve lost out on some other things that we also care about deeply as a society. Things like affordable housing, nice architecture [and] walkable neighborhoods, all of those things have been sacrificed to create enough parking.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Explain to us the idea of parking minimums and how that determines who gets or I should say, which buildings get built and where.

GRABAR Sure. In most cities and suburbs in the United States, the city code requires that every building come with a certain number of parking spaces. So that means you want to open a restaurant, you are obligated to provide a certain number of parking spaces dependent on your square footage you want to open. You want to build some housing, you have to provide a certain number of parking spaces. And the reason this is important is because parking and for one takes up a lot of space.

And number two is very expensive to build. So when you put these restrictions on builders in terms of what they could do with an existing property or an old building or something like that, you’re putting a massive imposition on the types of results that we can get in terms of the built environment and also just an enormous cost that’s added on to everything we build.

ABC NEWS LIVE: So what’s the solution here? How do we solve all of this?

GRABAR: Well, I think we could start by saying to builders, you can decide to build however much parking you want to build. You think that your tenants or your clients or the people who are buying your apartments, you think they want parking? Well, then you should build enough parking for them.

But what we’ve seen in the United States, in places that have begun to reform these policies, is that there are builders who have decided that, in fact, many people would actually prefer to pay less in rent and figure out the parking situation themselves.

I talked to a developer in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is nobody’s idea of a particularly walkable place, but nevertheless, he said, I could build the building with parking and it’ll be $75 million, or I can build it without parking and it will be $60 million and the rents will be $200 lower a month, and the tenants can figure out what they want to do with their cars themselves.

But at the very least, it’s not going to be bundled into their rent.

ABC NEWS LIVE: Do you think that there is a way that cities can be re-imagined, perhaps, where we don’t need this reliance on parking garages?

GRABAR: One thing we’ve done is we’ve created a cycle where the more parking we build, the more people drive. And that’s both because it functions as a subsidy for driving. If you buy a house and it was required to include a two-car garage, you’ve made it essentially a down payment on car ownership and in fact, a down payment on owning two cars. So that’s an incentive for driving.

And the other one is that when we build all this parking, we create an environment where it’s really hard to walk around or bike or it just feels unsafe and dangerous. And so there is also a virtuous cycle that can be unlocked if you create.

Places where parking is deprioritized, where the parking lot is behind the building instead of in front of it. Where there’s slightly, slightly less room for parking and slightly more room for buildings and for people. People are going to want to walk.

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