We’ve walked past them off Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, on Market Street in Philadelphia, on Washington Street in Boston just one block from the Common. They edge crowded sidewalks beneath skyscrapers and atop subway stations. They cover some of the most valuable real estate in the nation, in apparent contradiction of the natural laws of development. They are surface parking lots. In most American downtowns they are so widespread that the voided lot, not the solid building, is the base condition. 1 They are constructions of essential minimums: A sheet of asphalt, an attendant’s booth, floodlights for nighttime. Nothing more than what is required to store cars and collect money.
Like big-box retail, parking lots are a phenomenon of the free market. They mark a community’s economic viability while degrading its physical environment. Most Americans don’t seem bothered by parking lots; in fact quite the opposite. When a professor at Purdue University documented a quarter-million more parking lot spaces than registered vehicles in one Indiana county (11 spaces for every family), locals simply didn’t believe it. They could never find a place to park. 2
The MIT planning professor Eran Ben-Joseph quotes this study to illuminate the gap between land use reality and driver perception in his new book, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking. The “Re” of the title assumes that there has been previous thinking on the topic, but as the book makes clear, the only thought most of us give to parking spaces is that we expect one wherever we go. This expectation, plus the fact that surface lots are cheap and often required by zoning codes, means we have a lot of lots. Ben-Joseph cites an estimate of 500 million off-street, nonresidential parking spaces in the United States, or more than double the driving-age population. 3 Multiply that number of spaces by the 200 or so square feet that a spot in a retail lot might occupy and you get an area slightly larger than Puerto Rico, even before accounting for access lanes. Cue up Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
Parking lots are the most common and least questioned typology of the built environment. Ben-Joseph is not out to change this. He is no polemicist in the mold of James Howard Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere). He is not a scholar building an exhaustive, data-saturated argument like Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking). Nor is he a historian grappling with a cultural shift like Brian Ladd (Autophobia, which like ReThinking a Lot features a cover image of the now-demolished “Spindle” car sculpture) or Peter Wollen (who edited the anthology Autopia: Cars and Culture).
Ben-Joseph is a pragmatist. “[T]he reality is that parking and parking lots are here to stay,” he writes, and while one can imagine equally confident truisms of a century past (“Horses and stables are here to stay”), there is a logical immediacy to his focus. The yearly toll of automobility in the U.S. — 33,800 traffic deaths 4 and 1.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions 5 — are but abstractions to most of us, while parking lots are a real and obvious blemish on the face of the city. “So situated, the surface parking lot is a landscape ripe for transformation. … The question is, why can’t parking lots be modest paradises?” ReThinking a Lot is an attempt to undo Joni Mitchell’s dichotomy.
ReThinking a Lot unfolds in three parts. The first part is a survey on the state of the parking lot and its forms, uses and externalities. The latter category includes light pollution, heat islands and increased stormwater runoff, which pollutes waterways and overburdens sewage-treatment systems. (According to a report Ben-Joseph cites, Atlanta’s volume of runoff in the late 1990s was equivalent to more than half the metro area’s freshwater needs. 6) The middle section of the book is a historical overview of parking lots. While not as thorough as Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture, by John Jakle and Keith Sculle, it is laced with compelling threads. Ben-Joseph recounts, for example, an obscure 1950s legal battle in Colorado that for a time stopped cities in that state from forcing new developments to provide off-street parking. That was a rare and brief interlude. Today even cities with otherwise laissez-faire zoning policies, like Houston, compel owners to build new lots or garages alongside new construction.
The final third of ReThinking a Lot is what should be its linchpin, the feasibility test of its author’s call for lots to “be treated not as a residual space of our built world, but as an integral part of it.” Taking a cue from Margaret Crawford, John Chase and John Kaliski’s Everyday Urbanism, Ben-Joseph argues that “simple, generative interventions can transform the way we live and interact with our surroundings.” Based on the assembled evidence, however, transformative interventions are, at the moment, thin on the ground.
There are several projects that make elegant statements about the landscape potential of the parking lot; these include DIA/Beacon in upstate New York, designed by the artist Robert Irwin and the architecture firm Open Office, and the Concert Hall in Limoges, France, by landscape architect Michel Desvigne and architect Bernard Tschumi. Clearly, however, these high-profile, high-budget, non-urban works, associated with prestigious cultural venues, aren’t in the same frame as the workaday patch of asphalt. Other “Lots of Excellence,” as Ben-Joseph designates them, include the parking area of an intermodal terminus in Strasbourg, France, by Zaha Hadid, that is unremarkable save for a stall pattern legible mainly when photographed from the air.
There are also several that claim environmental benefits: the lot at the Sierra Nevada Brewery in Chico, California, is shaded with a grid of solar panels; a parking area in suburban Minnesota features a wind turbine that provides ten percent of the nearby building’s electricity. Leaving aside the question of whether these moves are mere greenwashing, it’s hard to see the “paradigm shift” the author claims. Environmental mitigation on it’s own does nothing to correct — and can even perpetuate — spatial waste and ugliness. With so few imaginative and genuinely transformative treatments to catalogue, his search for excellence is a brave but unconvincing sally against mediocrity.
ReThinking a Lot is not a typological survey (see instead Mark Childs’s Parking Spaces: A Design, Implementation and Use Manual for Architects, Planners and Engineers), nor a compendium of best practices. Readers seeking a systematic explanation of how lots are sited, built and maintained should look elsewhere. Surprisingly, for a book that includes “culture” in its title, Ben-Joseph writes little about the ways people behave when parking. 7 ReThinking a Lot reads instead like an extended essay, or maybe a series of lectures. Its nonlinear meander through unusual lots, local ordinances, art projects, parking history and environmental performance is the discursive equivalent of a shopper cruising for a good spot at the mall. The broad thesis is that parking lots needn’t be so awful, and might in fact be “significant public spaces.” But how?
It’s nice to see parking lots temporarily reprogrammed by dances, markets, community fairs and Shakespeare performances. It’s good to be reminded that swales, tree cover, permeable paving and load-bearing grass can enrich the lot’s multiuse potential and reduce runoff and heat buildup. But the real challenge remains one of public policy. How will parking operators, who typically manage lots on leased land and run a business with thin profit margins, be convinced or compelled to provide these extra amenities and upgrades? 8
Ben-Joseph is the author of an excellent book, The Code of the City, which surveys the impact of zoning and other legal codes on the built environment. He is the co-author of an outstanding one, Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities, which uncovers the history of suburbanization through changes in street design. What made both books so welcome and unusual was Ben-Joseph’s dedicated pursuit of an under-researched yet critically important aspect of urbanism. Throwing a light onto the dark arts of zoning codes and street dimensions, the author foregrounded some of urban design’s neglected historical baggage, and suggested new modes of operation for potential urban re-designers.
By comparison, ReThinking a Lot seems timid. Perhaps it stems from Ben-Joseph’s refusal to challenge the status quo. While correctly noting that “The car did not destroy the city, the poorly designed spaces for it did,” he never states the obvious: a surface parking lot is never the first-choice use for urban space, for either the parcel’s owners or the city. An individual lot may be appropriately sized and even designed with care and innovation, but what good can result when it is subsumed into the metastatic clusters that destroy urban space? The paving-over of whole city blocks is the signature urban transformation of the postwar era. Graybelts have not just enclosed downtown; they’ve pushed their tarmac salients into the civic core. 9
Jakle and Sculle’s Lots of Parking depicts the extent of destruction-by-asphalt over the decades with sequential maps of parking in Detroit and Indianapolis. Not only have the number of lots and total surface area devoted to parking increased exponentially, so has the average size of lots. In Indianapolis in 1942, for example, there were nine blocks downtown with more than a quarter of their area used for parking. By 2000 there were more than 30 such blocks, five of which were nothing but parking. And this transformation occurred along with an even larger increase in the number and size of parking garages over the same period.
This phenomenon has been so steady and pervasive that it is hard to recognize what a radical challenge it presents to urbanism. Jakle and Sculle point out that it was surface parking developed by investors and municipalities, and not federal urban renewal projects, that was the primary driver of urban clearances in the 20th century. “Economically redundant buildings were demolished and replaced with open-lot parking,” they write. “No one step in the process was, in itself, critical, but each step tended to accelerate the process overall, the cumulative effect being enormous.” 10 Or as Mark Childs puts it, in Parking Spaces, “Parking lots have eaten away at cities in the United States like moths devouring a lace wedding gown.” 11
For much of the past century, American cities have been decentralizing; stores and offices have been relocating to ever-farther suburbs along with middle-class housing. When in the postwar decades the outward flow became a torrent, cities reacted by trying to match the suburbs’ vast surpluses of parking. This rarely worked. In downtown Cincinnati, to cite just one example, retail square footage declined 16 percent as parking-lot area shot up by more than half. 12 Redevelopment projects by architects Victor Gruen, Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph, among others, proposed giant public garages on the peripheries of downtown and pedestrianized shopping districts. Those projects that were implemented (usually in different or incomplete versions of the original concept) ultimately failed as bulwarks against suburbanization. 13
Yet city governments, business lobbies and planners continue to chant “more parking” as a mantra for successful development. ReThinking a Lot and Lots of Parking provide convincing apologia for surface parking, framing the lot as a free-market actor and genuinely “American” expression of spatial culture. Both books argue that by softening the parking lot’s visual impact we can have it both ways: mobility and urbanism.
Perhaps that would be possible if lots were still the creatures they were before World War II: diminutive, lonesome and rare, spotted only in the urban fringes or hiding off alleyways. Their transformation into aggressive urban predators, hunting in packs, has changed the balance. They are now the dominant species in an ecology of urban disfigurement, slashing open streetscapes and devouring spaces meant for buildings, parks or plazas. No amount of well-intentioned design and thoughtful programming will change this spatial fact. If we want to have cities with more coherence, less congestion and better environmental performance, we need to rethink not just parking lots but parking, and maybe even urban mobility itself.
Reinventing the Automobile: Personal Urban Mobility for the 21st Century takes on this challenge in full. “Finally, a book that addresses the problem of carbon emissions, sustainability, transportation, city planning and traffic,” a book jacket blurb from Frank Gehry enthuses (one imagines him paging through the book’s bar charts and scatter-plot diagrams amid the drudgery of crumpling paper).
Reinventing the Automobile‘s scope is tremendous: not just where to park but the design of cars themselves, the energy sources to power them, and the technology to make them safer. It even finds time to propose a vast information infrastructure to manage travel data and usage pricing. Orchestrating this automotive gesamtkunstwerk are Christoper Borroni-Bird, director of advanced technology at GM, Lawrence Burns, former vice president of R&D at GM, and the late William Mitchell. Mitchell, who died a few months after the book was published, was a fixture at MIT as professor, dean of architecture and planning, and the director of the Media Lab’s Smart Cities Group. He was a productive writer who theorized early and often on the relationship between humans, data, networks and places. His City of Bits, E-topia, ME++ and Placing Words form an extended argument that ubiquitous interconnectivity in virtual space had changed the parameters of the physical world. Oddly enough for a book about cars, it is Mitchell’s enthusiasm for the networked future that motivates Reinventing the Automobile.
Like the cars and systems it proposes, Reinventing the Automobile is an ambitious hybrid. Even at the distance of two years (it was published in 2010), it is hard to know what to make of it. “Visionary” would be an easy adjective to toss out, but the tone is more earnest than evangelical. Its diagrams zoom between time budgets, energy load curves, well-to-wheels carbon-dioxide emissions, and parking lots in downtown Albuquerque. When a cute, bubbly concept car rolls across the page, it feels like comic relief.
Reinventing the Automobile brings together four concepts. The first, “a new automotive DNA,” argues that cars have not fundamentally changed since the first Model Ts rolled off the line more than a century ago; they are still powered by gasoline internal-combustion engines, controlled mechanically and operated autonomously. The future, the authors write, is a drive-by-wire pod for two riding on a hydrogen-powered skateboard chassis and tricked out with crash-avoidance sensors. This new design frees up space formerly dedicated to the engine and steering components, so one drives with a joystick and gets in and out through the windshield.
You have to get to the third concept to learn how this drivetrain revolution will be powered. A new infrastructure of hydrogen stations and recharging docks, the authors assure us, is technically and economically feasible. But wouldn’t this simply shift fossil fuel use from the gas tank to the grid? The authors respond with a barrage of “smart grid” jargon: load leveling, combined heat and power production, dynamic pricing, and “internet-like” distributed energy systems; in short, hi-tech efficiencies will save us. There is even a SimCity-esque rendering of little white boxes covered in solar panels and wind turbines that seems like a brilliant satire of mushy green urbanism (it is presented without apparent irony).
The book’s second concept is more newly packaged than new: it’s the “Mobility Internet,” a network for processing real-time data from vehicles into routing and traffic information, in this way enabling automatic control and driverless cars. GM’s famous “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York introduced the concept; ever since, engineers have been tinkering with various systems and technologies subsumed under the moniker Intelligent Transportation Systems, with some technical success but little deployment. 14 Now, however, highway tests by Volvo and the European Commission, as well as Nevada’s decision to license Google’s self-driving car, suggest that GPS combined with sophisticated software and traffic sensors is bringing about the first generation of self-driving road vehicles. But a vast digital network that would orchestrate car movements is still a long way off.
Finally, the book proposes “new mobility markets” for the real-time pricing of vehicle use, trip timing and parking spaces, based on the assumption that a large portion of the next-generation vehicle fleet will be employed for short-term rentals picked up and dropped off at points throughout a city. Reinventing the Automobile reckons that switching to shared vehicles will mean that each vehicle will spend 60 percent less time occupying a parking space. If you’ve used the bike-sharing systems that have sprung up in Paris, Montreal, Boston and Washington, or if you live in one of the hundreds of cities with a car-sharing service like ZipCar, you know that this idea is not new. Nor, the authors readily admit, are any of the four main concepts. So why now? “The enabling technologies underlying these four main concepts have only recently matured and begun to converge,” the authors write. “Feasibility now meets need.”
But here we need to note an important distinction: The need is not that of individual citizens but of urban society. “We are at a crossroads,” writes the former GM vice president. “We can choose how we wish to live our lives in cities. But first we must free ourselves from the constraints imposed by existing urban mobility structures and habits.” 15 This quote comes not from Reinventing the Automobile but from “Avoiding the Collision of Cities and Cars,” a report published nearly 20 years ago, which surveyed over 50 government, academic and industry experts to craft “a comprehensive program designed to deal with the social consequences of the motor vehicle and to achieve environmental, energy, and quality-of-life goals that continue to elude us as a society.” 16
The report’s recommendations back in 1993 included two-person electric vehicles, intelligent routing systems and electronic road pricing — uncanny intimations of Reinventing the Automobile’s own recommendations for a better future (reinvention never goes out of style). Instead the 1990s birthed a flotilla of SUVs, financed with fleeting gains from real estate and stock market bubbles and fueled with cheap, government-subsidized gas.
Today the recession and a growing awareness of climate change may have reawakened us to the possibility of change. Mass-production electric cars (which had a brief turn in the limelight during the mid-70s energy crisis) are now widely available if you’re willing to spend $30,000 or more. But without political will and massive investment, a vast overhaul of the kind proposed in Reinventing the Automobile is just as unlikely today as it was in 1993. Will popularly elected politicians raise the gas tax and institute new road-tolling schemes to encourage alternative vehicles? Following the $50-billion federal bailout of GM, the Chapter 11 reorganization of Chrysler as a subsidiary of Fiat, and the massive government loan to Ford, will our car makers race ahead with big, risky structural changes?
We should remember that it took four decades to progress from the Model T to the Interstate, and that the passage from early mass-produced car to mass automobility came about through incremental improvements in car, roadway, and communication technologies, as well as mounting frustrations with the inefficiencies of the railways and the limited reach of public transport. Postwar America’s fortuitous and unusual combination of political consensus and economic expansion produced the automobility solution, nothing less than an unprecedented grant of affordable, on-demand, high-speed automotive transportation to virtually anywhere. Preserving this promise has created an entitlement as massive and unsustainable as Social Security or Medicare, and like them, it is a presumptive American birthright that we can no longer afford under the current system.
This very unsustainability is a paradoxical ray of hope. Since we are now barely able to maintain the vast infrastructure that automobility requires, we can use the rebuilding of aging roads and bridges as an opportunity to rethink how to accommodate vehicles with better long-term fiscal, environmental and spatial performance. This will require that we think beyond the current funding mechanisms of the federal gas tax, road tolls and parking meters. Reinventing the Automobile’s penultimate chapter develops the idea of pricing trips with a useful, chart-filled analysis of urban mobility: car trips in cities tend to be short, low-speed and restricted by congestion, and, as ReThinking a Lot documents, the demand for individual trips leads to a high percentage of street and off-street space devoted to parking.
Several cities have incentivized car-sharing programs by granting their vehicles preferential street spaces. Couldn’t such simple, incremental carrots also be extended to parking lots? Cities and states could give tax breaks to lots under a certain size or in locations unlikely to attract prime development, or to those that use best-practice strategies like permeable paving, tree cover and space for events serving the broader community. The success of the Portland, Oregon-based non-profit Depave — which works to replace asphalt lots with “community green spaces” — suggests that some parking-lot owners already understand the uselessness of big, dumb lots.
Ultimately cities that care about their long-term vitality and appearance will have to do more than encourage progressive actors and incremental improvements. Eventually they must weed out lots and garages unwilling to make the basic gestures of good citizenship. They will need to act on what our gut tells us: surface lots detract aesthetically and environmentally from the cities they inhabit. Economic contribution should not excuse spatial parasitism. Starting with smart and sustained policies, we can set our course for the day in which open lots will recede to the margins and liberate their former lands for real and valuable urban use.