He tallies hidden costs of free parking – one space at a time

A researcher is counting parking spaces to determine if America has a surplus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nothing can match America's love affair with the automobile, but a close second might be the parking space.

They're everywhere, wrapped around shopping malls, churches, truck stops – expanses of yellow- and white-striped asphalt as much a part of the American landscape as amber waves of grain or lighted billboards. Now, however, some researchers worry that the United States may have too many parking spaces.

They say it's not worth the sprawl, polluted runoff, and heat generated by these vast lots of concrete and asphalt just to create more automotive resting stations by the Home Depot entrance or the Wal-Mart shopping-cart corral. Anyone who has circled and recircled an airport garage searching for an open spot might beg to differ. But a key problem is that no one really knows how much blacktop real estate is out there.

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Enter Bryan Pijanowski, a land-use scientist at Purdue University, who is busy counting the nation's parking spaces.

He hasn't gotten very far yet. Using sophisticated software, he and fellow researcher Amalie Davis count 355,000 off-street, nonresidential parking spaces in his home county of Tippecanoe in Indiana. Even that is an estimate based on aerial photos. Now, Dr. Pijanowski wants to expand his survey nationwide.

"This work is unique and important, quantifying something that's not been quantified before," says Donald Shoup, professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, himself a parking guru widely recognized as one of the nation's top researchers in the field.

If Pijanowski can finish his count, then researchers will finally determine whether the United States is suffering a parking surplus.

For Dr. Shoup, the issue is cost. Free parking, he says, doesn't turn out to be so free.

"We all pay for it, not in our role as drivers, but as residents, taxpayers, and customers," says Shoup, who documents the phenomenon in his book "The High Cost of Free Parking." Big parking lots hike building costs and get passed through to the consumer, sometimes through higher rents in their apartment buildings or bigger costs at their grocery stores. "Every place we drive and park free, we really pay for that parking as something other than as a driver," he says.

Others worry about the environmental impact of all that paving.

"We've had a big interest in this area for a while now, but it's not been well studied," says an official with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who requested anonymity because he did not have permission to speak to the press. "It's the amount of water, the speed and temperature of it pouring off these oceans of asphalt we have in this country, that concern us. And that's not even talking about the contamination washing off all that asphalt."

Early indications point to a lot of asphalt out there. If a single parking space averages 9-feet by 19-feet, then Tippecanoe County's 355,000 spaces translates into two square miles of pavement, the equivalent of about 1,000 football fields. If Tippecanoe is typical, that would mean the US has paved over roughly 6,000 square miles – an area larger than the state of Connecticut – to accommodate cars or trucks.

That's a conservative estimate, Pijanowski stresses, since he has not yet included on-street and residential parking or any other floors of parking garages except the rooftops, which are visible by air. In a nation with nearly 250 million registered vehicles, a few extra Rhode Islands of concrete might not seem to matter that much.

But a key finding in Pijanowski's research is the ratio of parking spaces to vehicles. In Tippecanoe County, at least, there are three times as many spaces as registered passenger vehicles. And there are 11 times as many spaces as families, his yet-to-be-published study found.

Does America's four-wheeled fleet really need all that extra elbow room?

Some activists in Los Angeles don't think so. Dozens of people – many of them involved in issues ranging from affordable housing to creating urban farmland – temporarily set up "parks" in scores of parking spaces throughout the city in honor of Friday's Park(ing) Day LA. The effort was, in part, to highlight how much of the public landscape is dominated by automobiles.

But most local governments think the space for cars is necessary, since they often set minimum parking requirements for stores and businesses. And retailers may be happy to spring for the extra cost of a megalot if it means no customer will be turned away even during the busiest shopping days, such as the day after Thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, some cities, including Pasadena, Calif.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Boston, are making progress by revamping parking regulations, charging more for on-street parking, and adjusting the amount of parking required in new developments. In Portland, for instance, maximum parking limits vary with the distance from light-rail stations. There's less parking required to be built near the stations, more several blocks away, the EPA reports. In Palo Alto and Iowa city, the idea of "land banking" – or setting aside land for parking to be built only if it is really needed has meant minimum parking requirements are waived or relaxed.

Car sharing, in which two cars share one space at varying times of day, has worked well in some parts of San Francisco. In its rich Sorro Commons area, 17 fewer parking spaces created space for a childcare center and retail stores.

These are moves Pijanowski applauds.

"I worry about our society being so disconnected from nature that we surround ourselves with concrete," he says. "I just don't think we really want to pave it all over."

Material from wire services was used in this report.

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