This photo was taken just before noon on Black Friday 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. These parking spaces that are empty today are likely to be empty forever. Nobody knows for sure, but there are somewhere around 8 spaces per car in parking lots across the US.
At around 400 square feet per space including access drives, those two billion spaces equate to over 30,000 square miles, with at least 27,000 square miles sitting empty at any time. That’s bigger than any of the smallest states in the US, from West Virginia on down, and bigger than New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island combined. How did we arrive at such an immense waste of land? It’s the minimum parking requirement section of almost every municipal zoning ordinance.
Minimum parking requirements were sold to the public as a good idea to force greedy developers to provide for the convenience of the people. In reality, it is only in sprawl, with its spread-out destinations divided by landscape buffers that there’s any rationale for them at all. In traditional urbanism many people walk or cycle to neighborhood businesses within their 15-minute city along their web of daily life. And those who do need to drive find that parking spaces throughout traditional neighborhoods are almost all shared instead of being claimed by any single merchant.
And there’s a dark underbelly of minimum parking requirements: by requiring such a waste of land, they spread everything much further apart. Look at Google Maps and you’ll see that most commercial buildings without expensive parking decks use only about a quarter of the land for the building and the rest for the parking lots and access drives. At a time when we’re beginning to understand how sprawl is impoverishing cities across the US, minimum parking requirements force all new development to be built like sprawl, even if that development is built to the principles of traditional neighborhoods. So the first thing to do is to insist that your city ditch the minimum parking requirements and let the market decide.
Once it’s no longer required, what’s a city to do with all that obsolete parking? Nothing. They don’t own it; the landowners do. But when a city is struggling with their affordable housing problem, these land banks masquerading as obsolete parking are great places to look. One of the greatest affordability struggles of recent years has been “drive til you qualify,” but that induces automobile poverty severe enough that even well-paid white collar workers in hyper-expensive places are trying to make do living in their cars instead of enduring super-long commutes.
And even schoolteachers, firefighters, police, and service workers are being pushed ever closer to poverty by having to drive everywhere. The ability to live in courtyard communities repurposed on the heretofore-wasted fringes of oversized parking lots means that at least their access to daily needs other than work are a short walk away, not so different from where Wanda and I live, right on the edge of downtown.
And for the landowners, this could be the greatest free land rush of the 21st century. Imagine converting assets that were previously maintenance expenses into income-producing property that not only generates rents, but also delivers dozens or maybe hundreds of customers just a short walk from your tenants! How sweet a deal is that?