The author, a degreed designer and staff writer at The Atlantic provides this compelling indictment of America’s mindless adoption of free parking everywhere for everyone. He writes with wit and entertains us with a plethora of amusing or mind-boggling anecdotes and inside lore from the world of parking. If you’re the type that likes peeking under the hood of the machinery of a vast, largely overlooked enterprise (it’s more than just an industry) you’ll find this fascinating. It reminds me very much of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade. There is so much more to parking than I ever imagined and the author has been studying it for years.
I was an attorney for a transportation authority, so this hits a topic I know a bit about. Not everyone is so interested, I realized, which is one reason I can’t give it five stars. He discusses how America’s love of parking, especially mandatory parking minimums for developers, drives more car ownership, hurts mass transit, results in excessive paving, and in more flight from urban centers. The once classic masonry buildings were replaced by parking lots and garages due to outlandish parking requirements in building codes that were based on no science or examination of need. He touches on parking meters and how they’ve been manipulated by gangsters and major corporations (if those can be distinguished). He gives a clear picture of the life of a parking attendant (ixnay on “meter maid”). He’s shown quite convincingly how removing mandatory minimum parking rules in Los Angeles and some other cities has revitalized downtown, or at least certain neighborhoods. His research and statistics sources prove that there’s a lot more free parking than is actually needed and most of it sits vacant most of the time. That’s incredibly valuable land going unused. There’s much more here than I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll add one perspective of my own that he only touched on briefly. When my district had to widen a commercial street, say for a bus lane or light rail extension, business owners would all claim six figure damages when we had to take a two-foot strip off their parking lot, notwithstanding the fact it was never full and creative restriping can save them the same number of spaces, and they’d often get it since it costs the district that much to take an eminent domain case to trial. And there are usually dozens, even hundreds of affected landowners for such projects. City planners don’t realize that those mandated spaces are going to have to be bought back by taxpayers later on at highly inflated prices.
But there’s another reason I can’t go to five stars, and that is I don’t think the author has gotten it right. He is writing from the perspective of one who loves big cities, especially New York and he is clearly a preservationist. I believe he’s in a minority and is ignoring the wants and needs of most Americans. When I was transferred to New York, I rented an apartment in the north end of Manhattan in a building that promised me an underground garage parking spot. After I signed the lease and moved in, they told me the spot wasn’t empty and I was “next on the list.” I had to wrestle with alternate side parking and after a few weeks my car got stolen off the street. I never bought a replacement while I was living there and never got a discount on rent. I despised everything about New York and its old masonry abominations with their inadequate plumbing, electricity, insulation. I love it in the suburbs of Silicon Valley where I live now with plenty of parking on my street and the local stores. My son and his wife both worked at Google HQ in Mountain View. They shared one car and would take turns walking or biking to their separate office buildings. They hated it. They sold their condo at a loss during the pandemic and bought a two-acre place on Puget Sound in Olympia, WA where they can now work from home when they’re not kayaking around in a natural paradise from their back yard. A comparable place in the Bay Area, if it existed, would cost at least three times as much, maybe twice that. Now they have two cars, including a Tesla, and plenty of parking. The fact is that people historically lived densely in big cities like New York because they had to, not because of its charm (except maybe for actors, writers, and artists). Most people want to live out away from the teeming masses, and technology and employers are now allowing them to do that. My point is not that he’s wrong about how getting rid of parking in general and free parking in particular can revitalize a vacant city core, it’s that we shouldn’t be trying to. Those old masonry buildings are environmental disasters with their impossible to heat 10-foot ceilings, fuel oil heating systems, and lack of insulation. The parking mandates that got them torn down did us all a favor.
The author certainly disagrees with me, and he is entitled to his opinion. I certainly respect his deep knowledge on the subject and enjoyed the book a great deal. Even if you don’t agree with him, it’s something every thoughtful person should read, and, by the way, I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.