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Breaking America’s Parking Addiction

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Propmodo’s weekly perspective on commercial real estate and things interesting to real estate executives. Curated by Franco Faraudo. View Archive

For many in real estate, development, and urban planning, the hook was set early on by a video game. As a kid I remember going to my local electronics store and buying a copy of a new strategy game, SimCity. After getting home, waiting a few long minutes for my computer to boot up, putting the floppy disk in the drive, and typing in the Dos command to run the file (start <SimCity_game>) I was able to become the master planner of a new metropolis. I loved the way that you had to balance all of the citizens’ needs and (despite the inevitable setbacks from a natural disaster or two) how a city could come to take on a shape and personality of its own. Since the game is still in existence today, I know I am not alone.

A few years ago I learned that the developers of SimCity were dedicated to realism but had to make an adjustment to the game in order to make it more playable. “Our game was going to be really boring if it was proportional in terms of parking lots,” said SimCity’s lead designer Stone Librande in an interview. He is right. No one wants to carve out more space for something as mundane as a parking lot than for the buildings themselves, but that is the case in many large cities. Los Angeles has more space dedicated to parking than the square footage of the entire island of Manhattan. 

Parking is boring but it was always seen as a necessity, especially for American cities that were built after the car became the main way we traveled and a focal point of our collective culture. The widespread availability of parking in our cities has made us believe that we have a right to park close to our destination and that one of the purposes of our streets is to house our vehicles when we are not using them. 

Now that belief is being challenged, both culturally and legally. During the pandemic many cities converted on-street parking to outdoor dining spaces. After having a nice meal on a warm day outside of your favorite restaurant, it is easy to understand the sentiment. Sure, we all know the rush of finding a parking space in front of our destination, but walking a bit to our destinations isn’t that big of a burden. If you look at many of the health problems in the country that can be traced to lack of activity, it might even do some of us good.

Our relationship with parking affects much more than just outdoor dining. Parking requirements dictated by zoning laws shapes what is feasible to build in any location. Developing the kind of dense urban landscape that is both more enjoyable and more sustainable isn’t feasible in most cities. Parking requirements are also compounding our country’s growing affordability crisis. Building dense, affordable housing usually doesn’t pencil when underground parking is required.

The strain that parking requirements put on new housing developments have become such a problem that California just passed a new state bill to address it. Not only does AB-2097 allow new developments next to public transit to be built with no parking minimums, it makes it impossible for local communities to require parking as well. This addresses what has been a huge problem for many states that handed over the entitlement process to local municipalities. Even though state laws may say one thing, local regulations or politicians can often supersede the mandates.

Based on the cultural and political climate in the country right now I expect to see more of these kinds of measures. For real estate, this could be a huge opportunity. Developments that were never possible before are now going to be able to break ground. I also think that this will spur the development of more parking garages. Some might say that this is not a worthwhile investment since technology like self-driving cars might make owning a vehicle a thing of the past. I really don’t think so. I have been writing about the possibility of a carless word for half a decade now and I have not seen any notable change on the streets. Cars are a part of us. They represent our independence, our status, our style, and our pastimes. Cars are here to stay, we might just not be able to park wherever we want all of the time.

Even though we might all see the benefit to less parking, it is hard not to rue these changes when driving around looking for a spot to carry groceries to your car on a hot day. So next time you think about how there should be more parking just remember how boring a game like SimCity would have been if every building needed dozens of parking spaces adjacent. Or, for those of you that did find joy in digital city building, think about the last time you said, “Wow, this is a really great neighborhood.” I can almost guarantee that there was probably not a parking lot in sight.

Overheard

Spots and lots

https://parknav.com/city/new-york

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