The excess of parking in Dallas’ downtown is often cited as a major obstacle to the area’s walkability, cohesiveness, and continued growth. It is a situation that is not unique to Dallas. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, nearly all American cities raced to back-fill their urban cores with new parking facilities. The rationale was that all these parking spaces were necessary for office workers commuting into the center from growing suburbs.
In reality, the pattern of growth that came with commuter-based development increasingly spread out the economic density of urban areas. As anyone who walks around downtown Dallas quickly notices, despite the proliferation of surface level parking, many of these lots and garages are never full. Nevertheless, the lack of parking continues to be cited as a challenge for leasing downtown office buildings, and new parking garages continue to be built.
One of the difficulties in assessing the true needs and value of parking, particularly in downtown areas, is that there has never been a comprehensive inventory of parking in American cities. In other words, we have built loads of parking, and yet no one knows how much we have built and how often it is used. Which is what makes this new report from the Research Institute for Housing America interesting. Recognizing the lack of adequate data on existing parking facilities in U.S. cities, researchers picked five American cities—Des Moines, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, and Jackson, Wyoming—to create such an inventory.
Unfortunately, Dallas was not one of the cities chosen for the initial study, but much of what researchers learned helps to illuminate shared challenges and opportunities. For example, often the investment in parking facilities is justified by the economic impact access to parking may have on nearby businesses, but the study found that there is an inverse relationship between the existence of parking and the value of land.
“Where land is less expensive, there is more likely to be surface parking,” it concludes. “And where land is more expensive, there is less likely to be surface parking. But what was surprising is that as land increases in price and surface parking begins to dissolve, the amount of parking in an area may still increase as parking spaces take shelter in new buildings. In a seeming paradox, parking is more pervasive where it is less visible.”
Despite the fact that parking seems to relate to lower land values, American cities have invested an incredible amount of capital in constructing them. Total replacement cost of all the parking spaces in the five cities tallies to some $81 billion, the study found. In Seattle the cost of replacing existing parking comes out to around $118,000 per household. The study also puts the quantity of parking spaces in interesting perspective. In Des Moines, for example, there are 18 times as many parking spaces as households. Seattle’s population density is around 13 people per acre, but its parking density is 29 parking stalls per acre.
Not surprisingly, with this huge number of parking available to city residents, many of the facilities go underused. For example, in Des Moines, the study found that one publicly-funded parking garage is typically only 8 percent full at mid-day. Parking occupancy rates outside downtown Seattle hover as low as 43 percent. New York was the only city of the five where some parking facilities tended to be at capacity.
It all paints a picture, the study concludes, of “an investment in parking that is out of balance with the current demand for parking in almost all cases, and even less in tune with what appears to be declining future demand. . . . [T]he research presented here suggests that future developments should provide fewer parking spaces than past developments. And today’s empty parking spaces can be seen as a land bank in some of the most convenient city locations.”
The Research Institute for Housing America’s report says that its approach to collecting data on parking can be replicated by other cities, and it would be interesting to see how some of these numbers shake out for Dallas, though I suspect it would reflect similar trends. In its report on the study, Streetsblog argues that this kind of data should serve as a wake-up to policy makers and the real estate industry:
The lending industry has been a big part of the problem, insisting on outdated parking formulas as a condition for financing new construction. The fact that this report was commissioned by mortgage bankers indicates that the industry may be ready to change its standards.
Parking inventories like the one Scharnhorst compiled for his report can lead to better decisions about parking construction, replacing the current system where parking is mandated by zoning codes based on guesswork and pseudoscience, and where the assumption is that everyone must be able to drive and park at every potential destination on the busiest day of the year.
Scharnhorst concludes that cities should change course, and that in places with excessive parking developers should “allocate capital to non-parking uses” — a.k.a. housing, commercial buildings, and, in general, the sorts of things that make cities habitable for people instead of cars.