Paved Paradise (Penguin, 2023) is a wild ride through the history and politics of parking in America. Author Henry Grabar convincingly shows “How Parking Explains the World,” and he doesn’t even need the whole book to do it.
About mid-way through, he describes the “Forbidden City” tour, which is a tour of old Los Angeles architecture, and the regulations — namely the parking minimums required of new construction — which prevented those forms of beloved neighborhood from continuing to be built. Through these parking minimums “Los Angeles banned itself” and “forced housing to bear the cost of driving.” As Grabar shows, this has played out in cities across the country.
Portland was an early adopter of rolling back parking mandates. In 2002 we dropped minimum parking requirements for buildings within 500 feet of transit—and I remember the ensuing controversy, especially from ticked-off friends who lived near Division. According to Grabar, Portland has gone back and forth with parking policy in the intervening years. At the state level, however, Oregon dropped parking mandates for all development located near transit in 2022. And just this summer, the City of Portland adopted rules which went further and dropped minimum parking mandates citywide.
But even with government on board with loosened parking minimums, financing a building without parking can still be a problem. To get a loan, the developer of Portland’s first building without parking had to fly a credit officer up from Wells Fargo in San Francisco in 2007 to see the number of Portlanders riding bikes and taking the bus. Many area developers continue to build off-street parking even though it is no longer required, but Grabar points out that, nationally at least, developers who do build parking are often downsizing their lots.
Portland is the center of attention of Paved Paradise for about ten pages, with our own parking reformer (and occasional BikePortland commenter) Tony Jordan as the hook. Jordan is one of the founders of the Parking Reform Network, a national organization which “educates the public about the impact of parking policy on climate change, equity, housing, and traffic,” and which has an impressive list of partnering organizations. Economist Donald Shoup is the first of a list of advisors.
Shoup gets a couple chapters in Paved Paradise. A UCLA economist, he published The High Cost of Free Parking in 2005 and started a revolution. (The second of the Shoup chapters is titled The Shoupistas Take City Hall.) Shoup provides the intellectual and academic foundation for an evidence-based over-turning of decades of parking policy, much of it guided by the now-discredited Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Parking Generation Manual and Trip Generation manuals. Shoup showed that these ITE-justified parking requirements “were pseudoscience,” and Grabar does an excellent job of detailing their impact on the nation’s built environment, “… the ITE quantified the experience of sprawl and planners imposed it on small towns, urban neighborhoods, and commercial cores.” A chapter titled Parkitecture describes what resulted:
Parking minimums had not just changed the feel of the street, the density of buildings, the cost of housing, and how much people drove. They had changed American design traditions too … Mostly, Americans just stopped building small buildings. Parking requirements helped trigger an extinction-level event for bite-sized, infill apartment buildings like row houses, brownstones, and triple-deckers; the production of buildings with two to four units fell more than 90 percent between 1971 and 2021.
But Paved Paradise is not just another wonky policy book. It’s entertaining and makes for great summer reading. Who knew parking was so colorful? There’s the mafia, corruption in Chicago, diplomats in New York — and one really tough cookie meter-maid! It’s a page-turner which is hard to put down.
Nevertheless, it was slow reading for me, partly because the book is so thought-provoking. So, yeah, I was reading the book fast enough, but at the same time I was slowed down by a running monologue of questions and ideas specific to Portland.
For example, Portland is in the middle of reviewing our bike-parking requirements because they have been identified by those involved with building as burdensome. Grabar makes it clear that inexpensive and readily available car parking, like freeway-expansion, induces demand for driving and cars. Does the same hold true for bicycle parking and roadway facilities? Research taking advantage of the natural experiment the pandemic provided shows that “if you build it, they will use it,” at least concerning bike lanes.
And what about other “assets?” Grabar does an admirable job of staying tightly-focused on a huge topic—car parking. But as a reader I don’t have to do that. I kept substituting the words “frontage improvements” and “sidewalk” for Grabar’s “parking,” because a lot of developers consider those requirements to be burdensome too. Is it fair for those same developers, or their pro-development allies, to disparage me — or neighborhood associations — for holding the city accountable for following-through on building code-required public improvements?
Affordable housing. This is another huge topic. Local government does make an attempt to protect what it calls “areas vulnerable to displacement,” or gentrification. But what happens when parking minimums are loosened because a project is in the vicinity of public transit, but the transportation money for making that transit safely accessible falls through, like recently happened in Tigard with the Terrace Glenn subsidized apartments? Terrace Glenn even received Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) funds, but the residents won’t be able to safely cross the street in front of their building to reach the transit center a block away.
And then there is the more abstract, chicken-and-egg, Rubic’s cube, question: which comes first, transit or density? Paved Parking addresses that one, and I’ll quote at length, like Grabar did:
You begin to hear radical, Shoupian thinking from the strangest places—like from the Department of City Planning in sprawling Atlanta, where director Time Keane did not mince words. “That has been proven time and time again, in every single city in the world that the more parking you provide, the more people drive,” he told WABE, the local NPR affiliate, in 2016. “We need to shift now, from a situation like this, where you have a heavy parking load associated with an apartment building in a very urban setting, to way less parking, I hear this all the time, ‘Well, we don’t want the density unless we get transit.’ Well, I’ve got news for you. You really have to start with the density and less parking. If you don’t, then you have lost your opportunity, because once you’ve built that infrastructure, it’s so difficult to undo that.
The dynamic behind each of these examples is that of a more agile, profit-motivated, private entity building the housing, and a more cumbersome, vulnerable-to-politics, public entity (with variable and uncertain funding) providing the public goods like transit and street improvements.
These are not easy issues, and I consider “thought-provoking” the highest compliment. If these quandaries interest you, or if you just want a really fun read, pick up Paved Paradise.