As cities encourage more biking and walking, parking garages should be a thing of the past

The car’s grip over city planning has been difficult to dislodge, despite a host of costs to the environment and to the quality of life for many city dwellers.

SHARE As cities encourage more biking and walking, parking garages should be a thing of the past
An SUV drives into a garage operated by Chicago Parking Solutions in Sept. 2022 near North Halsted Street and West Addison Street.

An SUV drives into a garage near North Halsted Street and West Addison Street.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

For the past century, the public and private sector appear to have agreed on one thing: the more parking, the better.

As a result, cities were built up in ways that devoted valuable space to storing cars, did little to accommodate people who don’t own cars and forced developers to build expensive parking structures that increased the cost of living.

Two assumptions undergird this urban parking policy: Without convenient parking, car owners would be reluctant to patronize businesses; and absent a dedicated parking spot for their vehicle, they’d be less likely to rent and buy homes.

Because parcels of urban land are usually small and pricey, developers build multi-story garages. And so today, a glut of these bulky concrete boxes clutter America’s densely populated cities.

We have beenstudying urban development and parking for decades. The car’s grip over city planning has been difficult to dislodge, despite a host of costs to the environment and to the quality of life for many city dwellers.

But we see signs that’s finally starting to change.

Opinion bug


As car ownership exploded in the first half of the 20th century, municipalities started to mandate a minimum number of parking spaces whenever new stores or apartment complexes were built.

Many of these regulations continue to bluntly guide development.

Yet parking garages and parking lots end up using precious land to house cars instead of people at a time when cities are confronted with a severe housing shortage and skyrocketing housing costs.

Parking requirements are a particular burden at many affordable housing developments, where low-income residents are less likely to own cars yet inadvertently pay for parking all the same.

Thankfully, in some parts of the country, a course correction is already underway.

City planners, developers and designers now have new guidelines that make parking spots less of a priority and take into account all of the new ways people get around.

Dozens of cities, including Denver and Minneapolis — along with the entire state of California — are reforming parking requirements, promoting transportation alternatives and amending regulations for new construction.

Developers are also finding ways to accommodate the growing numbers of residents who are forgoing car ownership altogether.

At The Civic, a condominium complex in Portland, Oregon, builders swapped dedicated parking for 24 households for car-share memberships.

At the Casa Arbella Apartments in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California, residents receive $150 for transport services and shared bikes.

In Denver, Mile High Development leased 120 spaces in an adjacent underutilized public garage for the Sheridan Station Apartments, improving the financial solvency of the income-restricted project and passing the savings on to tenants.

And 1213 Walnut, an apartment complex in Philadelphia, unbundles apartment rents from parking spaces to allow residents to pay for only what they need.

Mushroom farms and food markets

But what to do with existing garages that suck up choice real estate?

Demolishing existing garages requires additional energy, emissions and money. Garages’ sloped ramps and heavy concrete make adaptation challenging; there isn’t a natural transition to, say, loft apartments.

But these impediments haven’t stopped some developers from creative repurposing.

For example, in Wichita, Kansas, Bokeh Development retrofitted a mid-20th century garage into a 44-unit apartment building. In Denver, developers of the Denizen Apartments have built ground-floor parking designed to be easily converted to stores or apartments if cars fall out of favor.

Other garages support urban agriculture; in Paris, one garage was recently converted to an urban mushroom farm. The open-air top decks of garages have hosted food trucks and food festivals, served as concert venues and operated as sites for solar panels.

These shifts have been spurred, in part, by changes to the way people get around cities, as well as changes to street design. For those who can afford them, ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft can alleviate the need to own and park personal vehicles. Effective “mobility as a service” is around the corner in most cities, allowing residents to use a single app to connect to transportation options.

Electric bicycles and scootershave also expanded the suite of mobility options for city dwellers in a way that regular bikes have struggled to do for generations.

In the coming years, we believe urban life will rely less and less on providing adequate storage for cars, and the cities of the future will eagerly embrace making urban neighborhoods more inclusive, pedestrian-oriented and climate-friendly.

Space in cities is precious. The more human-oriented it can be, the better.

Kevin J. Krizek is professor of environmental design, and John Hersey is teaching assistant professor of environmental design, both at University of Colorado Boulder.

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