Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture
Hess, Daniel Baldwin
John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville VA (2004), 293 pp., US$34.95.
The automobile and the effects of automobility have shaped built and social environments in the United States more profoundly than any other invention. Jakle and Sculle have established themselves as the pre-eminent American writers about automobility, automobile environments, and roadside architecture. This latest book explores the consequences of cars not in motion but at rest. Why would anyone write about the seemingly mundane topic of parking? Because the majority of cars are in motion, as the authors point out, not more than 5 per cent of the time. The remaining 95 per cent of the time the vehicles must be stored. The evolution of where, when, and how American drivers store cars is presented as a blend of history, cultural geography, architecture, urbanism, and public policy.
The authors’ central theme is that, although Americans’ unprecedented automobility has generally led to a higher quality of life, the parking capacity required to support automobility has had significant, mostly detrimental, effects on our cities. The evolution of parking as a necessity and therefore a growth industry is effectively set against the backdrop of the decline of central cities and the growth of outlying suburbs.
In recounting the story of the rapid expansion of America’s parking supply, the authors devote a great deal of attention, perhaps not surprisingly, to central business districts, where destruction resulting from the creation of abundant parking was more widely felt, especially in big cities, than in any other place. Downtowns were dissected in order to provide space to park (often two to three times the size of stores or offices). When kerb parking reached capacity, cities proceeded to build off-street parking, first in at-grade parking lots, then in structures, and finally, at great expense, below ground. Using Detroit and Indianapolis as effective case studies, the authors illustrate how parking lots caused an ‘erosion’ of downtowns, beginning in the 1960s. In these and other cities the objective of downtown interests was to sufficiently expand the parking supply so that no building was more than one block from a parking lot. Downtowns were eviscerated in the process, eventually becoming better suited to automobile travel than to pedestrian travel. Nowadays the parking supply, which can make or break development deals, is a key component of downtown revilatisation projects – including malls, festival market places, convention centres, sports stadia, offices, and housing.
What began as ‘hands off land use control, where the parking supply was concerned, eventually turned into municipal parking requirements for retail and commerce that became codified in local zoning ordinances and building codes. The legal requirement to provide parking now dominates nearly every type of development. Eventually, zoning ordinances influenced land use, design of buildings, and cost of development. In designing our modern conveniences – groceries, retail, strip plazas, motels, banks – traffic planners assume that people will not walk more than 300 ft.
The design sensibility of most parking lots is dismal and portrays ‘low place imagery’. Jakle and Sculle argue that parking appears to be an afterthought of much development, with few aesthetic concerns in evidence beyond convenience and affordability. That there is little incentive for owners/operators to improve the aesthetics of parking lots can be explained by the notion that parking develops from two indirect demands. First, there is the demand to travel between two places that are spatially separated, and second there is the demand to store the vehicle at the end of the trip.
When the authors introduce the topic of free parking they wittily ask, ‘Do most Americans think it could be any other way?’ (p. 185). Subsidised (or free) parking encourages people to own more automobiles, to drive more frequently, to live farther away, and to demand even more free parking, which is then provided in subsequent development cycles. In this way, requiring developers to provide off-street parking profoundly raises the cost of development and distorts land markets. The exorbitant costs of parking, which, by recent estimates, can account for 40 per cent of the costs of new office development, are largely left by Jakle and Sculle for future investigation. The authors elaborate on the physical effects of parking on built environments while giving insufficient attention to the economic effects of parking’s hidden subsidies on American transport policy. This is a missed opportunity to shed light on price distortions that are not evident to the naked eye, since many drivers do not realise that their ‘free’ parking spaces may cost more than the parked vehicles.
The authors intersperse historical information with observations about context, design, and policy. There are images and technical diagrams, including a fascinating series of maps showing the gradual expansion of downtown Detroit’s staggeringly large parking supply. In-depth discussions of parking in particular environments (such as downtowns and suburbs) as well as archetypal cities (such as Los Angeles and Allentown PA) help reinforce the arguments. The authors use a rich array of source material, including newspaper accounts, journal articles, planning reports, and interviews.
In the end, Lois of Parking and other works by Jakle and Sculle help us to understand how the built environment transformed slowly but dramatically to accommodate the automobile, and how automobility appealed to Americans’ strong spirit of individualism and independence.
Daniel Baldwin Hess, State University of New York, Buffalo
Copyright Manchester University Press Sep 2005
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