Book Review: Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar
You might not think that a book about parking would be interesting, but you would be wrong. Paved Paradise: How parking explains the world by Henry Grabar (Penguin, 2023) is funny, discerning, and informative. Have you ever wondered why so many buildings flounder in seas of white-lined pavement, or why everyone loves visiting walkable downtowns but no one builds them? Why is parking at the center of nearly every local zoning debate?
Or maybe you're wondering why parking matters enough for someone to write an entire book about it in the first place.
Grabar delivers. He starts by sparking your curiosity: America devotes a ton of space to parking. He writes,
"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, meaning that our national parking stock is never more than 17% occupied." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p xiv
Why is there so much parking in America? Do we really need that much? If not, why did we build it? Grabar explores all these questions, and more. From the history of attached garages to the escapades of parking attendants in New York City, from the dealings of parking garage fraudsters to the rise of urban shopping malls, Grabar digs into every aspect of parking. Every chapter includes numerous anecdotes and profiles that make the story of parking—and the problems created by parking—both entertaining and highly relevant.
And the whole point, for him, is to present the case for parking reform.
What's the problem with parking now?
So we have lots of parking. Why does that matter? It's easy enough, most of the time, to find a spot near wherever you're going—at least, if you live in suburbia. City downtowns can be hotbeds of parking fights (as described in Chapter 2). Why should we care about who parks where or how much parking is available?
Grabar argues his cause on several fronts. First, there are environmental effects of dedicating so much land mass to asphalt lots: (1) greenhouse gas emissions from a construction, (2) loss of natural land to suburban development, (3) the urban heat island effect, (4) increased flooding, (5) water pollution from runoff from roads and parking lots, and (6) decreased groundwater absorption.
Second, when parking is easily available, more people drive. (On the flip side, one study found that when employers stopped providing or subsidizing free parking, over 25% of employees stopped driving to work.) Increased driving leads to increased greenhouse gas emissions, ground level air pollution, and car crashes and injuries. Grabar writes,
"Parking built into houses and apartments is a greater predictor of car use than density, transit, or any other neighborhood attribute. … Nationally, people who live in housing parking included are 60 to 80 percent more likely to own cars than neighbors without dedicated off-street parking." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p82
In 1953, fewer than half of Detroit's 57,000 downtown commuters used cars. The more parking lots were built, the more people drove. Americans abandoned mass transit. Trolleys fell by the wayside. Cities were convinced that building enough parking would revitalize downtowns. By 1972, Detroit's downtown dedicated 74% of its land to vehicle movement and storage.
Third, many Americans do want to live in walkable areas. Just look at where the most expensive places to live in the country tend to be: the dense, walkable, city neighborhoods.
Fourth, we have plenty of parking. Grabar explains that almost every place where people complain of parking shortages actually has an oversupply of parking. What people meant was the parking space right in front of the place they wanted to be was full. They didn't want to walk, not even for a minute. In addition, most apartment building lots, residential lots, and garages were only around 60 to 65% occupied at night, meaning that builders supplied far more spaces than they actually needed to.
But builders were required to provide those extra spaces. Grabar writes,
"There is a powerful law of parking, too … virtually every U.S. jurisdiction … [can] mandate the provision of parking spaces with every new home, store, school, office, doughnut shop, movie theater, or tennis court. Overtime, it was this decision, more than the highways or the malls or the tax-poaching suburbs themselves, that would prove the most influential legacy of the mid-century downtown parking crisis." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p69
Grabar explains the history of those regulations. Many of the parking requirements that we see enforced by zoning codes today were created by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the ITE, in the 1980s. They assumed that every building creates car trips, and all projects and streets and parking should be designed and constructed according to this science of trip generation. Also, baked in, was the instruction that commercial parking lots should be built to accommodate some of the busiest days that that commercial area might ever see, such as a Saturday before Christmas.
"The assumption behind parking requirements… was that every new structure generated traffic…. McKenna-Foster's view was that this theory was backward. An apartment building, he said, did not generate car trips anymore than a banana generated fruit flies. An apartment building sitting atop eight stories of garage, on a street without sidewalks, linked by a six-lane, fifty-miles-per-hour arterial to a commercial area that is 70 percent parking by service area would attract car trips. But the car trips were not an inherent feature of the building anymore than the fruit flies were of a banana. It was the context that determined the way people would travel." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p156
The parking requirements assumed that all homeowners could afford cars, wanted to pay for parking them, and that they preferred their cars to other modes of transportation. Big assumptions, all around. Then, by building so much parking, more people drove, or felt they had to; people became trapped in a cycle of automobile dependency.
Fifth, parking requirements are partly behind our current housing shortages. About building apartments, Grabar writes,
"Parking garages cost so much money that developers must raise rents. To justify high rents, developers get into an arms race to provide amenities—roof gardens, cycling studios—which add costs. And then before you know it, everything is a "luxury" development." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p219
In between the sprawl of single-family homes and high-density luxury condos is another class of housing that is largely missing from American cities—duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, sixplexes, small apartment buildings, and other smaller multi-family buildings. These generally aren't built because of parking requirements. Surface parking takes up too much area, but structured parking costs too much. Similarly, in many suburban neighborhoods, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and garage conversions are difficult to build because of off-street parking requirements, despite the fact that, as Grabar points out, they enable
"Cheaper housing units in high-opportunity neighborhoods. Higher densities that would enable more local commerce, better public transit service, and more walkable areas. Rental income to help aging homeowners stay in empty-nest houses. Smaller units for older residents looking to downsize in their own neighborhoods, or for on-site caregivers. Privacy and affordability for young adults." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p234
Current parking policy and parking requirements lead to a lot of problems. So what's the solution?
If parking is a problem, how do we fix it?
"The need for a perfect parking space has also shaped the country's physical landscape. It has become the organizing principle of American architecture, from the parking-first design of the strip mall to office towers that sit like sculptures atop the garage pedestals to the house itself, where the garage is off in the largest room and the dominant feature of the facade. In most of the country, it is illegal to build a home without parking. The need for parking determines local politics and the behavioral compact that governs the street in front of your house. At the center of our biggest cities, some of the most valuable public land on earth has been exclusively reserved for the free storage of private cars." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, pxi
The whole book is an argument for parking reform. Grabar explains the history of "parking minimums"—i.e., the number of parking spaces developers are required to build for any given building, set in law in zoning codes. He wants us to understand why developers are required to build so much parking—when cities remove the requirement, developers nearly always build less—and what the consequences of requiring a lot of parking actually are. Grabar wants us to understand the problems with the assumption that we should always get free car storage everywhere we go—and what alternatives can actually work.
In short, Grabar wants us to see that there's a better way to build cities and towns than to erect islands in vast seas of pavement. Every chapter contributes to the story, demonstrating the rationale behind his policy recommendations and building the case for changing the laws around parking.
Grabar summarizes his position near the end of the book:
"The path forward from a policy perspective seemed clear. Abolish parking minimums and let developers build the amount of parking their clients want. Break garage rents apart from apartment rents so carless tenants don't have to subsidize their neighbors driving. Recognize that more parking means less housing, especially affordable housing. Let different uses—an office and an apartment building, a school and a movie theater—share parking. Charge for the best street parking, and use parking prices and enforcement not to generate cash and cycles of punishment but to manage city streets. Invest the proceeds in the neighborhood. Let architects design environments where people can walk. Ask drivers to bear some of the externalities of automobile use." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p280
Many of these ideas about parking reform come from Donald Shoup's influential tome, The High Cost of Free Parking. As Grabar summarizes,
"He [Shoup] proposed two big ideas…. The first was dynamic, demand-based pricing at downtown parking meters to free up spaces, charging for curb parking based on its availability.… The second was an end to the parking-minimum laws that required new parking spots in every new or renovated building." —Paved Paradise, Henry Grabar, p151
Shoup's solution is to charge for parking—charge high rates for good spots, no rates for bad spots. In a lot of places, curbside parking is free and garages charge entry; Shoup says this is backwards. Parking meters and free garages would work better. Then curbside parking would be available for people shopping and going on short trips, while commuters would park a little farther away or in garages. Curbs would also be more available for uses other than bus stops and car storage—loading zones, delivery, pick ups and drop offs, food trucks, parklets, bike shares and car shares. Shoup also argues for spending any parking money collected on local improvements and upgrades, such as benches and street trees.
Shoup's second idea was to eliminate any parking requirements when building. Evidence shows that developers still do build parking, but in quantities better suited to the particular building and locale. For instance, one developer who built both an office building and an apartment building built exactly one parking garage shared between them. The commuters living in the apartments didn't need their spaces during the day, which is when the office needed them. The garage had almost half the number of spaces that two separate garages would have required.
Grabar doesn't talk about the time cost or annoyance of paid parking. We have paid lots in a downtown area near us, but I generally avoid them (in favor of less convenient street parking) because of the hassle of the parking apps.
Do Shoup's suggestions and Grabar's policy recommendations work? Grabar presents stories from municipalities that have implemented these ideas. The results: Less driving around the block and better parking availability. Developers snatching up previously untouchable redevelopment projects, increasing their value twentyfold and revitalizing downtowns. More affordable housing of all kinds, from apartment buildings to fourplexes to accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and garage conversions. In short: yes, they work.
What Paved Paradise misses
One glaring omission is race. Grabar reports a conversation with a Californian developer, in which she recounts how she has never been asked by city officials about ceiling heights or rent increases or quality of life for tenants. It's always about parking. She says, "We care more about housing for our cars than we care about housing for ourselves." (p10). Or maybe, parking is the stand-in for the topics these people can't raise in polite company. Parking requirements can be substitutes for talking about race segregation. As M. Nolan Gray wrote in his book Arbitrary Lines, zoning codes have segregationist roots (Read my review of the book). It's a complex topic; perhaps Grabar felt he didn't need to address it to get his points about parking across.
Second, all the examples and stories in the book are from large cities. The discussion is most applicable to large cities. I imagine that's because all the parking problems are most prominent and visible in large cities. Still, I would have liked to see some consideration of the effects of parking policy in smaller cities and towns. That said, if you look elsewhere, there are documented cases of how removing parking minimums from zoning in small cities has benefited the area, such as this story of Sandpoint, Idaho.
Overall, Paved Paradise is a worthwhile book for anyone interested in the future of cities, localism, urban development, transportation, and—especially—anyone who drives a car or is annoyed that they have to deal with the architecture created by too many cars. Here's what can be done about it!