Parking — Is it really as bad as people say?

The book by Henry Grabar, a staff writer for Slate, is making the rounds and he has become a media darling. By playing off Joni Mitchell’s song, he seems to have garnered some credibility. Its title: Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.

First let’s talk about Joni – she wrote the song in Honolulu, after she looked out her hotel window and saw a parking lot. “They took away all the trees and put up a parking lot.” But did they?

There are more trees in Los Angeles today than there have ever been, by the millions. We live in an urban forest. I went back to tour my alma mater, UCLA, and couldn’t see the buildings for the trees, thousands of them. People want to believe that we are destroying the earth, but they don’t look around and see what is actually happening.

Clyde points out that surface parking is actually and land bank. Owners use it for parking, but when it’s time to build, it is readily available. I cannot for the life of me understand how this is a bad thing.

I was interviewed by a Wall Street Journal reporter who lived in Los Angeles. He liked to shop and play in the area around Melrose and LaBrea. He told me that there wasn’t any parking there. I told him that I knew the area and there was tons of parking, behind the stores. Yes, he said, but you had to pay for it. He wanted more free parking like he found on the streets.

Back to Grabar. Just how does parking explain the world? I’m not sure Grabar actually answers that question. He didn’t in his interview. It’s a fancy title, but does it really mean anything.

Don Shoup titled his book “The High Cost of Free Parking” and then set about to show how free parking actually costs the driver, and everyone else. He posits that if all parking costs the driver at the time it was used, and the cost was based on convenience, the marketplace would take care of the parking problem, assuming there truly is one.

PT’s offices are located in a class A building near LAX. There is abundant parking under the building. I have never, in the seven years  we’ve been there,  seen the parking full – even when it was opened to airport parking. We pay for parking. And tenants think about how many spaces they need.

Parking is a major issue with drivers. They want it available, convenient, and free. They pressure their elected officials to keep it that way. What mayor or council member is going to die on the hill of parking? None that I know.

How many times have you complained that there wasn’t enough parking, when in reality there wasn’t enough parking close to your destination. It was a block away. And it cost to park there. There was plenty of parking, it just wasn’t the kind of parking you wanted.

We shudder at numbers that tell us that there are two or three times as many parking spaces as there are cars in the US. But think about it, a car is either parked at its owner’s home (one space) or at its destination (another space). Why is that so hard to figure out. Merchants and venues want to attract customers and make it convenient for them. So they build enough parking for their customers.

Why is there almost always parking available except on the day after Christmas, or when stores are selling the formula for turning dirt into gold? Because drivers know that you don’t go to Costco at 10 in the morning on Saturday. It’s jammed. Parking at the mall, or Costco, or Home Depot, is self regulating.

Grabar uses New York and Boston as his examples. I think that there are maybe a thousand other cities in the US where people park just fine, thank you very much. Don’t get me wrong – parking can often be a pain, but we know that and know how to deal with it. One of the ways is to read a book like Grabar’s and nod our heads at the veracity of it. Even when we had no problem parking at the mall when we went to the bookstore to buy it.


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8 Responses to Parking — Is it really as bad as people say?

  1. Don Shoup says:

    Hi John,

    I’m happy to hear that you like Paved Paradise.

    I think you overlooked his chapter on minimum parking requirements, however, when you write, “Merchants and venues want to attract customers and make it convenient for them. So they build enough parking for their customers.”

    If this statement is true, why do cities require developers to provide ample off-street parking for all buildings? Developers provide all the parking spaces that cities require, even if this is far more parking than they want to build.

    Minimum parking requirements probably explain your comment, “PT’s offices are located in a class A building near LAX. There is abundant parking under the building. I have never, in the seven years we’ve been there, seen the parking full – even when it was opened to airport parking.”

    Ample underground parking isn’t cheap, but cities requires it (or did in California until AB 2097 prohibited cities from requiring off-street parking within a half mile of major transit stops). Henry Grabar argues that market prices rather than minimum parking requirements should govern the parking supply.

    Here are the links to several book reviews that you and many PT readers might enjoy reading:


  2. Clyde Wilson says:

    The reality is this group of people hate the POV and dream up reasons that they are unnecessary. They only see one side of the issue. You and I and almost everyone else have to live in a world where we have to evaluate both sides of any issue and make the decision where we fall. They want us to live in the middle of a vast city with millions of people living on top of each other where our home is on the 15th floor and 4 thousand people live in our building with their kids. To live that way they walk to work no matter the weather, they have to walk kids to school because it is not safe for them to walk alone. They have to walk to the grocery every day because we cannot carry enough groceries to last a week or even a few days. In the American way of life we prefer to not live in a building with thousands of other people and a city on top of close to a million people so we drive to work, school, grocery, dinner, and mall, and it is necessary to have 3 or 4 parking spaces for my one car to park. They hate cars so they think having parking spaces are bad. We don’t want to live on top of each other so we think parking is a necessity.

  3. JVH says:

    Hi Don: I can’t say I like or dislike the book, as I have never read it. My comments are based on an interview of Garber. I’m not surprised that there are all those reviews. People just line up to disparage parking. Best — JVH

  4. Paul Barter says:

    Hi John,

    I really think you would find Henry Grabar’s book a great read. It is full of personal stories of people in parking. It is right up your alley. Like you, Henry is fascinated by the ins and outs of the parking world and he reveals them in an entertaining way.

    But I get the feeling that you think Grabar’s book and people like Don Shoup, me and the Parking Reform Network are a threat to the parking industry?

    In fact, both this book and parking reform are almost certainly a GOOD THING for (most of) the parking industry!

    Parking reform expand demand for parking management. The core of the parking reform agenda is to stop promoting oversupply (it is not necessary anyway) and to manage the existing parking much better (or start managing it at all). If the parking reform movement sees much more success, it would cause a big increase in the need for parking management, both on-street and off-street. Transit-oriented areas will need less parking, so some downtown garages (for example) will close. That may sound bad but at the same time managed parking will expand into new areas. Areas where most parking is currently unmanaged. A large proportion of the parking industry segments advertising in Parking Today would stand to benefit from such trends, no?

    In fact, I think enlightened parking industry leaders should think about following the lead of Parkade and Studio Davis in sponsoring parking reform organizations like PRN (see https://parkingreform.org/sponsors/).

    You seem to think parking reform is anti-car? Sure, you can easily find some radical rhetoric from some parking reformers, even leading ones. We have a range of views. And many are moderate. Don Shoup never indulges in rhetoric that could be portrayed as “anti-car”. My approach is anti car-dependence and pro expanding choice and mobility options. I don’t think of it as anti-car (but maybe you would?). Anyway, parking reform is a big tent and the core agenda that everyone agrees on is not aggressively anti-car. It is only anti-car if you expect parking to be free-of-charge and ultra-plentiful.

    The parking management (and allied) industries and the parking reform movement are actually natural allies.


  5. JVH says:

    Hello Paul — I think the list of reviews in Don’s reply below proves my point. That is, readers want to read about negatives concerning parking, whether it is fun, well written, or whatever. As for you or Tony at PRN being a threat to the industry, I truly believe you are more a threat to the automobile industry. My guess is that if, for whatever reason, the entire world outlawed parking requirements, you would look to other goals to reduce private vehicle use.
    Frankly, Paul, what needs to happen to make that a part of our lives, is to change people’s attitude about freedom. That is, gain acceptance of a group of elites that control where one lives, how one lives, and move everyone into 900 square foot apartments in a central city. No car needed then, as you can walk to everything you need.
    I’m just not ‘with it’ when it means that I have to go to the grocery store every day since i have to carry the groceries home. Sure, some people love to live cheek by jowl in the city, and more power to them. But others have elected to live in the ‘burbs’ and have a little plot of land they can call their own. More power to them, too.
    All the best

  6. Paul Barter says:

    Wow. I think you have been forming your views about the transportation agendas of people like me from people who misrepresent them. Never mind. Let’s agree to disagree?

    But we SHOULD have common ground on parking reform itself, even if we disagree on that wider transportation agenda.

    It’s not just that parking reform is not a threat to the parking industry (as you mention in your reply).

    It’s that it is actually a huge OPPORTUNITY. The parking industry would likely grow in volume and value as PRN-style parking reform gathers momentum.

    The key trend would be towards less of a glut of parking and towards more need to manage the remaining parking so that car users still get a good experience (even if we have to pay more often). That seems like a huge opportunity for the Parking Today readership and advertising community.

    In more detail, parking reform success would mean more need for parking information, more need for convenient parking payments, more need for skillful and effective enforcement, more unbundled residential parking needing management, more workplace parking plans, more valet parking, more commercial district parking validation deals, more need for innovation in residential and other permits, skillful management of access to EV charging in some contexts, more need to share existing parking, more decisions by parking owners to open to the public rather than keep their parking private or reserved or customers-only, and so on and so on.

    None of that is anti-car, is it? And a bigger and better parking industry doing all those things would make BOTH of us happy, wouldn’t it?

    All the best,


  7. JVH says:

    Let me be as clear as I can be. I don’t see you, Tony, or Don as a threat to the parking industry, I see you as a threat to the AUTOMOTIVE industry. I concur that the parking industry could do a much better job in managing existing parking and more tools could be developed to help them do so. As for where I got my ideas about your transportation agenda, I think it came from you. I have met many times with Don Shoup and discussed not only parking but urban planning, I have debated the subject with Tony Jordan and discussed it in detail in my office, and I believe you and I have discussed the topic in person as well as on line. In virtually every case, the conversation morphs into transportation planning and into urban design.
    An example might be how you are not only a parking planner, but also a transportation planner — isn’t your other website Reinventing Transport.
    My problem is the difficulty of ‘fixing’ ancient cities like Cairo, London, Paris, New York and the like. The solution seems to be the Chinese approach of building a city, then forcing people to move in.
    From my point of view, the issue is one of personal choice, convenience, and freedom. The soccer mom who drives an SUV to pick up and deliver her child’s team has the ability to do so on her schedule, and her team’s schedule. not the schedule of the local bus or metro line. While her son or daughter is practicing, she can drive to the local supermarket and pick up a weeks worth or groceries, drop off her dry cleaning, and then get back to pick up the kids and return them safely home.
    Convenience is another issue — I attempted to take the bus from my home to work. This is a 10 minute drive. The trip on the bus took an hour and a quarter and two changes. Don tells me with a smile that I should move closer to work. Right.
    The nearest metro station is two miles away. A nice hike.
    The key, from my seat, is the freedom to choose. If you want to bike, drive, use public transport, or walk, by all mean do so. What I resent is being forced into one mode or another.
    All the best

  8. Evan Manvel says:

    Seems like you take away different things from this:

    the issue is one of personal choice, convenience, and freedom

    Parking reformers generally agree. Builders should have the choice to build parking, or not. People should have the freedom to choose how to get around, and what mix of amenities they want when choosing a home.

    Seems like your argument is “the government should provide a huge amount of land for a subset of people who choose to drive and live in suburban housing” – or am I misreading it?

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