Anyone familiar with downtown Dallas knows about its parking paradox. According to many in the real estate community, there is simply not enough parking — such a lack, in fact, that it makes economic sense to build new parking garages to accommodate all of the cars that want to be downtown. On the other hand, take a walk through downtown and all you see is parking — huge expanses of lots, blocks and blocks of garages — so much so that parking is a major reason why downtown can feel so dead, vacant, and even dangerous.
I can appreciate why the real estate market responds to the issue of parking in the way it does. When you’re trying to fill up a giant skyscraper with office tenants, it is difficult to compete with buildings outside the central loop that can offer easy access to parking. The desire to add more parking downtown is part of a belief that if you make it easier to get to and park in downtown more people will come, and the area will thrive. But a new study shows just how backwards this thinking actually is.
Researchers at the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, and the University of Connecticut have released a compelling study that offers pretty solid empirical data that shows what we all kind of already know intuitively: adding parking only causes more driving. Looking at historical data from nine mid-size American cities, they found that as cities added more parking, the share of commuters who drove to work increased. On average, as the share of spaces rises from 20 to 50 per 100 residents, driving rises from 60 percent to 83 percent. What’s more is they demonstrated what looks like a tipping point when it comes to parking’s causal relationship with increased driving. As cities approach nearly five or six spaces per 1,000 square feet of building area, nearly everyone drives.
That ratio doesn’t really approach downtown’s parking situation. Quickly pulling numbers from some old articles, in 2014, the number of parking spots in downtown was estimated at 69,000, while available office space is something like 30 million square feet. That’s an insane amount of space, and it is a reminder that downtown’s parking problems are inextricably tied to its skyline. However much the overly jubilant civic desire to build that glistening skyline has come to brand and define this city, those 1980s office buildings overburdened downtown with density that the essential economics of the area doesn’t support.
Still, the study’s findings that parking causes driving strikes right to the heart of downtown’s parking paradox. While it may be tempting to address the marketability of downtown’s office space by adding parking, all that does is perpetuate a cycle that increases the amount of driving. It’s a repetitive cycle of cause and effect that drives land use in a singular direction: towards the kind of over-paved, over-parked environment that exists in downtown today. As Emily Badger points out in her Washington Post piece about the research, the findings challenge the way cities have approach parking policies since the 1950s and 1960s:
It’s a provocative argument, though, that parking causes driving, and if this were true, a lot of city policies would look sort of backwards. When cities think they’re merely accommodating all the driving we do — by, for starters, requiring apartments and businesses to build parking lots — they’re actually encouraging that driving in the first place.
But here’s where things get difficult for Dallas. Badger opens her piece with an anecdote about living in a vibrant area of Washington, D.C., where driving is unthinkable on the weekends because finding a spot after moving one’s car is nearly impossible. So on Friday and Saturday, she walks to everything she wants to do — groceries, restaurants, entertainment. As a result, she supports the economy in her neighborhood and — multiply her actions by a factor equal to all the other people who live in the neighborhood who also don’t drive on weekends — the area becomes increasingly thriving and vibrant. What Badger’s anecdote shows is that that lack of available parking, while possibly annoying at times, isn’t a detriment to the economy of the neighborhood. In fact, it could be seen as a benefit. The lack of parking on the weekends reflects the desire of people wanting to be there. Desirability increases, parking dries up. Parking dries up, desirability increases.
But this is not how Dallas thinks about parking, nor is it how it makes policy decisions around land use. Dallas begins with the assumption that everyone has to drive everywhere because this is Dallas, and as a result we cater to a market that will always be hungry for more available parking. Lately, many of the conversations about downtown and other parts of the urban core have tried to strike a compromise between parking and walkability, dressing up parking garages with retail or tucking parking garages behind or under new buildings. But these are false compromises, and they don’t address the fundamental problem: sustaining a ready and available parking supply in an urban area only perpetuates age-old driving habits that creates the economic pressure to add additional parking supply.
We want parts of town that are impossible to park in because those are nearly always the most desirable places to be in a city. And like Badger, or anyone who has lived in a city with neighborhoods like the one she describes in D.C., you know that when faced with difficult parking you come up with other ways to get to desirable neighborhoods. Plus, it gives you something to bitch about over drinks, a frustrated experience of the place that weds you to it, becoming part of how you identify yourself as its inhabitant. But in order to realize truly vibrant and successful urban neighborhoods, we have to take the plunge. Dallas doesn’t just need to change its parking policy, it needs a change in mindset. We have to accept that limiting park is a good thing, that it can increase economic viability, and that it is the only way to break the cycle of cause and effect that drives Dallas’ persistently car-centric approach to urban revitalization.