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Free Parking Is Just Around The Corner


Free Parking Is Just Around The Corner

In case it’s not on your calendar, make a note: Parking Day 2017 is just around the corner. Since 2005, this event has taken place annually on the third Friday of September. You didn’t know? To celebrate, you are cordially invited to transform a metered or otherwise eligible spot into something other than a place to stash a vehicle. Some suggestions: a pop-up health clinic. a bike repair station, a place for a wedding (you might want two spots for this), a ping pong “court”, a canoe dock, a cafe where visitors can relax and drink a coffee. Or you could organize a seminar about parking.

“I know how to park,” you say. Or “I don’t have car. What’s to talk about?” Actually, quite a lot.

The $96 billion hassle

Let’s start with the poor, beleaguered U.S. driver. That may be you. On average, he or she  spends 17 hours every year looking for 15 square meters in which to leave a vehicle. Considering that most cars are in motion only 5% of the time, that parking space is pretty important. In total, according to research conducted by Inrix, a traffic consultancy (and parking app developer), looking for parking represents a total annual cost to American drivers of $95.7 billion, reflecting

  • $92.7 billion of wasted time, fuel and other operating expense
  • $20.4 billion of payments for more time than the driver needs, and
  • $2.6 billion of parking fines.

That doesn’t include the societal cost of traffic congestion, the economic cost of cancelled appointments (reported by 40% of the Inrix US sample) or shopping trips, or the emotional cost of a confrontation with another driver over a parking space (reported by 32% of male US drivers).

So why not build more parking? It turns out that there are already more parking spaces in the U.S. than we might ever need. They’re just not where we need them. According to one estimate, there are between 105 million and 2 billion parking spaces in the United States. As many as one-third of them are in parking lots. The New York Times reported a few years ago that there are 8 spots for every car in the country. Let’s say there are 500 million spaces in the U.S., as MIT Professor Eran Ben-Joseph suggests. That’s an area larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. In some cities, he says, parking accounts for more than one-third of the total land area.

Parking Math

Barring dramatic changes, more parking is probably on the way. The reason: in many cities, guidelines require builders to provide a minimum amount of parking for each apartment. These requirements are all over the lot (so to speak) — one space per apartment, two spaces per apartment, two spaces per unit with one of them being covered or underground; and so on.

Apartments are not the only buildings affected. Typically, fast food restaurants have to provide one space for every 3 seats. Bowling alleys have to build seven spaces per lane, plus one for every employee. As The Economist discovered, in Las Vegas. “sex novelty shops” are required to provide 3 spaces for every 1,000 sq. ft. of floor space, while “adult entertainment cabarets” must provide 10 for the same area. In Cupertino, California,  home of Apple’s new corporate headquarters, the city required 11,000 spaces for its 14,000 employees. Total space devoted to offices and labs in the new Apple building: 318,000 square meters. Total space required for parking: 325,000 square meters. And you ask why the traffic in Silicon Valley is some of the worst in the nation?

Just a traffic jam or two away from  Apple, Elon Musk is doing his best to reinvent driving.  He’s having more success with that than with reinventing parking. At the Tesla factory in Fremont, CA, 6,000 employees are locked in a daily Hunger Games struggle for 4,500 spaces. Some employees told the Wall Street Journal recently that they arrive early to find spaces, then sleep in their cars until it’s time to go to work.

On the residential front, one big problem is that a lot of renters don’t own cars. Nevertheless, the rent they pay is based on the builder’s cost of providing parking — whether they want it or not. Renters who don’t own cars, who tend to be less affuent than those who do, pay in aggregate a whopping $440 million a year for an amenity they don’t use, according to the UCLA Economic Letter. Among the other negative consequences,  minimum parking requirements add to the cost of housing. In some cases, the parking upcharge represents as little as 6%; in others, it’s as much as 35%, according to the Sightline Institute, which studies sustainability issues in the Northwest U.S.

Unfortunately, as many as one-third of all the spaces provided to comply with minimum requirements go unused, even at the busiest times of the day. A study by Smart Growth America reported in The Washington Post found that of five transit-oriented development projects in five different cities, not one “generated enough parking to fill even half the number that planning industry standards would have suggested.” As Chris Zimmerman of Smart Growth America told The Post, the land closest to stations is most valuable. Putting parking there means there’s  less room for affordable housing, offices and retail.

The Oslo Solution

Meanwhile, drivers circling the block are filling the air with pollution. The average time each U.S. driver spends searching for parking over the course of a year is 17 fun-filled hours. That figure flattens out significant regional variations. In New York, for instance, the average annual circling time is 107 hours. That’s a lot of exhaust. Indeed, auto emissions take more American lives each year than traffic accidents — 53,000 for the former, 34,000 for the latter.

To cut down on Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs) , the city of Oslo, Norway, proposed banning vehicles from the city center — as other cities have tried to do. After all, most of the residents of downtown Oslo — 88% — don’t own cars. Still, the idea went over like a cold sauna, and provoked such vehement opposition that the city had to back up. What they decided to do instead is simpler:  remove all the parking spots. Now they’re in the process of converting them for use as public spaces, playgrounds, sites for cultural events “or other things you can fill the space with when you don’t have 1,200 kilograms of glass and steel,” Oslo’s mayor told Fast Company.

Rocky Mountain High

By seeking to make more parking available than is needed, much of it free, cities and corporate landlords are providing a powerful incentive for people to keep driving. That’s one reason public transport projects have converted so few drivers. In 1990, The Economist reports, 73% of Americans drove to work alone. In 2014, the percentage went up, to 76%. So deeply ingrained is parking in our cultural DNA that even organizations that you’d expect to support public transport seem blind to the need.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), for instance, a leading nonprofit environmental research and consulting firm, built a 4,000 square foot headquarters  in Snowmass, Colorado. This architectural showcase utilized a wide variety of advanced green building techniques and materials. In his book Green Metropolis, David Owen argues that despite its technology, RMI set a terrible example, not only by building “in a fragile location, on virgin land 7,100 feet above sea level,” but also by locating its HQ 180 miles from the nearest transit system. That means long commutes for employees and lots of fuel consumption by delivery trucks, snowplows, and maintenance vehicles, among others. RMI has since converted the building to a private residence for its founder.

Related: The Capitalist Manifesto: Changing Business for Good

Disruption Ahead

Another way to spend Parking Day is by pondering about the future of the automobile. Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, projects that by 2050, there will be as many as 1 billion battery electric vehicles (EV) on the road. These will account for 69% of global car sales and for half of all vehicles in operation. In fact, there are already two million EVs driving around (soundlessly) today.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance says that electric cars will become cheaper than conventional autos by or before 2030. India has said that by that year, it wants all cars sold in that country to be electric. Norway plans to make the sale of internal combustion vehicles illegal by 2025. France and the UK plan to do the same by 2040. By 2030, says RethinkX, a think tank, conventional vehicles will still account for 40% of the autos in the U.S., but for only 5% of the miles travelled. Within 10 years of regulatory approval, predicts the think tank, 95% of US passenger miles will be served by on-demand autonomous electric vehicles owned by fleets, not individuals. The full title of the ReThinkX report deserves a spoiler alert: “The Disruption of Transportation and The Collapse of the Internal Combustion Vehicle and Oil Industries.”

If that happens, the parking game is going to change dramatically, freeing up a lot of space, time and money for every American.

What are the odds? 

Consider: on September 6, the U.S House of Representatives passed legislation to speed up the roll-out of self-driving vehicles. During the same week, China announced it will soon join other countries that have set a date for the end of internal combustion vehicle sales.

And in the Flash Gordon category, a savvy investor group has just put up $90 million to help finance the development of a flying car. The prototype, called the Eagle, is a two-seater. A five-seater “air taxi” is also in development. It has a projected range of 186 miles. It’s electric, too. Best of all, perhaps, these airborne chariots take off and land vertically. That at least will make it easier to park — once the pilot finds a spot.

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