'Paved Paradise' examines how parking has changed the American landscape
'Paved Paradise' examines how parking has changed the American landscape
Author Henry Grabar says parking codes, parking lots and garages have shaped the landscape of cities and suburbs, and limited the creation of affordable housing.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Drivers and passengers, how much time have you wasted circling around and around searching for a parking spot? Have you nearly gotten killed by someone competing for the same spot? Are you outraged by prices charged by commercial parking garages? Or maybe you live in a suburb that's been paved over for parking lots that are now half-empty?
My guest, Henry Grabar, tells the stories behind these familiar problems in his new book, but he also writes about larger issues that you might not be aware of. He describes the book as, in part, the story of how we destroyed our cities in search of more and more available parking and the people who helped make it so - the mall builders, mobsters, police and the politicians, the garage magnates and community groups. There are new alternatives in the works for dealing with traffic and parking. He covers those, too, in his new book, "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." Grabar is a staff writer at Slate who covers housing, transportation and urban policy. He was the editor of the book "The Future Of Transportation."
Henry Grabar, welcome to FRESH AIR. Before we get into the big issues, can we trade an example or two of what we find most frustrating or weird about parking? I'll start with, in the North, when you dig out a spot for your car so you can drive out after a snowstorm, what people have often done in Philly is put a lawn chair or a trash can or some piece of furniture in the parking spot to reserve it to say, this is mine. I dug this out, and I'm keeping it. And I don't know if that happens in Brooklyn, where you live, but where does that date back to? Do you know? Like, where does this tradition start? At first, I thought this is just a Philly thing, and now I realize it's not.
HENRY GRABAR: I've seen that practice in Chicago, where I lived when I was writing this book. I know it happens in Boston. I believe it happens in Pittsburgh. I think pretty much wherever it snows and there is street parking, there will be claims made on the street. And I think what's interesting about this practice is not only there's the kind of implicit threat of violence that, like, if you were to...
GROSS: (Laughter) That's right.
GRABAR: ...Move one of these objects and take the space, that you might be beaten over the head with it, but also, that it's defended by politicians. You know, I think when Boston discussed, for example, limiting this practice to 48 hours after a snowfall, meaning you could make a claim but only for 48 hours, a city councilman said the issue speaks to the basic principle of what it means to be an American.
GRABAR: Like the gold miner and pioneers, residents have a right to stake their claims. And I think you can see the entitlement in the entire American parking picture in that one expression.
GROSS: OK. Your turn. A frustrating or bizarre issue relating to parking that you've dealt with.
GRABAR: I mean, I just hate not being able to find a parking space. I find, like, the advanced knowledge, the premonition that I will have trouble parking discourages me from driving. And I think about it from the moment I get in the car how I'm going to be able to leave the car behind when I get out of it. And it stresses me out from the moment I get behind the wheel.
GROSS: And this is a good moment to mention that your book isn't anti-car, but it's looking for alternatives to the problems that we have. So I have one more I want to mention to you. Parking garages drive me crazy. First of all, they charge a fortune now. And second of all, the way they're designed - like, the ramps I particularly hate in the garages where there's, like, six stories or more is that sometimes they're really narrow spirals, so you have to drive, like, super slowly, or else you're going to, like, crash into the wall. And it's almost, like, dizzying. And then in the parking spot itself, the parking spot is often way too small with a pole on either side. So it is so easy to smash into one of those poles or not be able to open the door 'cause your other - the other car is too close to you.
GRABAR: Yeah. Parking garages are, I think, some of Americans' least favorite places. And one thing I learned when I was working on this book was that at the dawn of the auto age, as parking garages become a fixture of American downtowns, there are some city planners and architects who think that parking garages will assume the grandeur of Europe's great - or America's great - train stations. The idea that parking garages as these sort of transportation destinations will become these kind of centers of activity. And obviously, that never came to pass. I think there's this kind of lore in American history of the garage as a place where bad things happen or secretive things, perhaps, like, the exchange with Deep Throat that led to the uncovering of the Watergate scandal. I mean, that happened in a parking garage. So the bottom line here is that while many people in the parking industry like to think they are in the hospitality business and...
GRABAR: ...Are offering a service, the reality is, it's a commodity. And the only important thing about a parking space is that it's in front of you when you need it. And so obviously, they do try to maximize the amount of cars they can park per square foot, and they're not really that interested in creating a pleasant user experience.
GROSS: I'm going to just mention one more thing. In Philly, they're very vigilant about ticketing you, like, a minute after your meter has expired or towing you if you're in a tow-away zone, and you might not even know it 'cause the sign might be covered by trees, so you can't even see it. And if you are towed, your car is taken to the land of junkyards far away from the central part of the city where you've parked. It's really expensive just to get to where your car is. And then you're met with, like, fee after fee, and it's hundreds of dollars. Is that pretty typical in cities?
GRABAR: I think so. Essentially, parking enforcement serves as a subset of what is now known as revenue-driven policing. And the idea here is that cities take advantage of these parking laws to try and get as much money out of people as possible, but not in the way that you would think, right? I mean, I think this is a common misconception. Meter rates are actually, for the most part, pretty low in most cities, which is to say they are below the market clearing price that would create empty spaces on every block. Most cities make more money from illegal parking fines than they do from meters and garage taxes put together. So, for example, New York City in 2015 made $565 million in parking fines. It's the biggest category of fines that the city issues. But they made just $200 million from parking meters.
So what's essentially being run here - and I don't know if cities are conscious of this - is a system that is poorly designed that almost seems like the incentives are in favor of illegal parking because for the city, that's where they make their money. And I think you see this also in - you know, with deliveries. Like, a truck making deliveries often double-parks, can rack up in New York or in Boston, like, tens of thousands of dollars in fines every year. And you could ask, well, maybe the city should create delivery zones in which a truck could pull in and park and make that delivery without blocking traffic. But then you realize, the city makes a lot of money from illegal parking fines. So this status quo in which it's very challenging to find parking, parking is underpriced and difficult to find, and it results in all these fines and sort of complicated processes to get your car back, this to some extent works to the city budget's advantage, unfortunately.
GROSS: Yeah, I'm glad you brought up the double-parked delivery trucks because you write about how some of these, like, delivery trucks have deals in New York with the city that they pay less of a fine if they're ticketed. And so which kind of delivery services are we talking about, and what is this deal?
GRABAR: Yeah. So when I talk about the way that cities are happy with the status quo, they're happy with the idea that there's not enough parking, and as a result, there's a lot of illegal parking. And even though that blocks traffic, they make a lot of money from it. One of the things I'm talking about is this deal that the New York City Department of Finance has with some of the biggest illegal parking violators. So those are companies like FedEx, UPS, grocery delivery companies like FreshDirect. Now, they account for about a half a million parking summonses in New York City every year. And that's just the times they get caught. (Laughter) So you can only imagine how much traffic is being blocked by the fact that there is so much double parking related to the shortage of curbside zones for them to do these deliveries.
In short, there are so many fines that the city has created a special repeat offender program with them, right? And they call it the scofflaw we can trust discount, which is to say, New York says, all right, UPS, if you're not going to challenge these tickets and waste our time in court, we'll cut you a deal. We'll give you a discount. And so, you know, and we're talking tens of millions of dollars here that they pay every year. And the discount could be as much as a third of the cost of the tickets that the companies would otherwise have paid.
GROSS: You say in your book that we want parking that's convenient, available and free, but it's impossible to meet all three demands. Why is that?
GRABAR: I think there's a few reasons. I mean, number one is perhaps geometry, right? Like, cars take up a lot of space. If you go to a dense city neighborhood where everyone would like to drive at the same time, you're simply going to have a lot of trouble getting all those cars into that zone and leaving them, right? I mean, your average parking spot, including a way to get in and a way to get out, is probably 300 square feet. So it doesn't take that many cars to take up a lot of urban real estate. And people tend to want to go to the same place at the same time.
Now, of course, the easy answer is, well, let's just build a lot of parking. And here we get to the second component of that, which is that parking is expensive. It's really expensive to build. I mean, we're talking - in a structured parking garage, parking can cost tens of thousands of dollars a stall. I've seen some recent projects where it's in the six figures - $100,000 for every stall of parking. And so at that price, whether it's being built by a private operator or by a municipality, you're going to have a lot of trouble giving that away for free and balancing the books on that.
So there you have two of the issues, right? Like, it can't necessarily be available and free at the same time. And then finally, there's the question of convenience. And I think we have internalized the idea that a parking spot ought to be right in front of the place we are driving to, especially when we're in cities. And I think what's interesting is that we don't have that expectation at the mall. Like, nobody expects to drive into the mall and park in front of the Sharper Image inside the mall, right? But we have that expectation with parking in cities.
And again, coming back to these forces of time and geometry and money and the cost of building things, you just cannot put that many cars right in front of the entrance to a restaurant. It's simply not possible.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Grabar, author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Henry Grabar, author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." It's about how parking codes, parking lots and garages have shaped the landscape of cities and suburbs and limited the creation of affordable housing.
One of the main points of your book is that parking has determined the landscape of cities and suburbs, and that might seem obvious, but it might not to our listeners. So I want you to explain what you mean by that.
GRABAR: Sure. So when I think about parking's effect on the landscape, one of the things that I'm thinking about are the laws that were passed in the 1950s and '60s in this country that require that every type of building have a certain number of parking spaces. So if you look into the code of your city or suburb, you will likely find a table like this. And it will be very, very long, and it will have almost every conceivable land use you can imagine, from the obvious ones, like apartments and offices, to ones that seem perhaps exceedingly specific, like a dirty bookstore or a nunnery or a tennis court. And for every one, there's a requirement of a certain number of parking spaces.
Now, when you remember that a parking space takes up about 300 square feet, if you're going to require 10, 20, 1,000 parking spaces with these various uses, you are ensuring that perhaps half your property now is consumed with parking. And you see this when you drive around and you look at a post-war commercial strip in a suburb. You will notice that the buildings float in the parking lots, like these little buoys in the sea. And all that parking is required. I mean, that's the law that is ensuring that those properties tend to be half parking by area.
And if you go to a historic downtown, those types of buildings - right? - two, three stories that - you know, they're semi-attached or attached, forming an uninterrupted street wall of storefronts and offices above or perhaps housing, that kind of stuff is simply illegal to build in most places. So there's a reason that we've stopped building things the way we used to. And the reason in large part is parking.
GROSS: So some of the really nice things about older cities wouldn't be legal now, if you're starting from scratch and building.
GRABAR: I think almost every built form that you can imagine from the early 20th century would be illegal to build in most cities today, perhaps because of zoning, but I think more fundamentally because of parking, right? And so I'm talking about things like, on the housing front, brownstones, triple deckers, three flats, bungalow courts. Every city has its kind of vernacular attached or semi-attached housing that was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And these are often some of the most beloved parts of cities and some of the most expensive housing at this point. Unfortunately, according to most residential codes, in most places, they are now illegal to build.
This is also true of office buildings. I mean, something like the Empire State Building - right? - if you were to supply the book mandated amount of parking for the Empire State Building today, you would have a surface parking lot stretching over 12 Manhattan blocks. So clearly, you begin to see how some of these older forms become incompatible with the modern demand to ensure a certain number of parking spaces with every property.
GROSS: And you say these parking codes have also limited the amount of affordable housing. What's the connection?
GRABAR: Well, so parking costs money and takes up space. Let me give you a specific example. I traveled to Austin, Texas, a couple years ago. And Austin, Texas, for a long time - this is beginning to change now - but for a long time, Austin, Texas, mandated a large amount of parking with every new home or business. And I went to see an affordable housing project there for the - for formerly homeless individuals. And it was 50 units for the formerly homeless. And they had built a garage, mandated by the city code, of 58 spots.
Now, people who are just coming off the street, who have been living in tents on the street, are not likely to have their own car. And not surprisingly, the garage was almost all empty. But the builder of that building had to pay for that garage, you know? They had to pay probably tens of thousands of dollars for every one of those 50 stalls. And that eats into the bottom line of the project, and it makes it harder to build more units. And it also takes up space that would otherwise be filled with apartments. Now, you see that process repeat in building after building, in cities and suburbs all over the country.
GROSS: Are cities and suburbs starting to rethink those parking codes?
GRABAR: Yes. There's been a great deal of reform since I started writing this book. I think I - in 2017, when I began thinking about this idea that parking would make an interesting subject for a book, there were just two cities in the country that had fully abolished the obligation to provide parking with every housing unit, and those were Buffalo, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn. And since, this reform has spread to other cities - San Francisco, San Jose. California has done away with parking requirements for affordable housing, full stop. Other cities, like Minneapolis, have done away with parking requirements citywide.
So there's a great deal of reform, and I think it's coming from two places. The first of them is that there's a realization that parking creates traffic, not the other way around. And if cities want to reduce traffic, they want to meet their climate goals and reduce the country's No. 1 source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is transportation, they need to reform the way they provide parking. And mandating parking is clearly, in that context, a step in the wrong direction.
GROSS: Let me stop you there. You're saying that creating more parking creates more traffic because if there's more parking, you're more likely to drive.
GRABAR: Yeah. It's counterintuitive. But at the beginning - right? - in the 1950s and '60s, when cities were sort of swamped by traffic, they figured, OK, we have to build parking because if we don't build parking, people will continue to circle the block looking for parking, and we'll be stuck with this terrible traffic problem. So they built a ton of parking. But what we have learned since is that, in fact, if you require every single land use to be - to come with a certain number of parking spots and, in some cases, to be half parking by surface area, you are creating a lot of incentives for people to drive.
Not only are you requiring renters and homeowners to pay for that parking in the lease or in the sales price when they purchase or rent a new unit. Sometimes that can amount to 15 or 20% of the total cost of the unit - just the parking, right? So if you don't drive, that's a pretty big down payment you're making on a car right there. But the other part of it is that the more parking you provide, the harder it becomes to walk, bike or use transit because you create a low-density environment that's just not particularly pleasant to walk in. And it can be that simple that, you know, when you find yourself in an environment where you're surrounded by parking lots, it becomes difficult to get around any other way than in a car.
GROSS: Is there another point you wanted to make before I interrupted you?
GRABAR: The other thing I think is behind this big reform movement is housing, right? So the United States has a serious housing affordability problem right now, and some studies estimate that we are millions of units short in providing adequate housing. And the cities that have begun to reform these laws requiring parking have realized that parking - required parking - is a major impediment to achieving housing affordability. And that's not just because it costs so much to build and impedes the development of affordable housing projects, but it's also because it changes the types of projects that get built.
I mean, if you are under obligation to provide two parking spaces per unit, which is the requirement in many places, you are going to find it difficult to work with small infill lots. You're going to find it impossible to build some of these older forms we were talking about, like brownstones, triple-deckers, three-flats, etc. And this is a huge impediment to building the kind of housing that many communities have decided that they need.
And so if you zoom out a little bit, one of the consequences of free parking, one of the externalities we've been talking about, is that if you don't regulate street parking and you create these shortages, people circling around the block and so forth, you create an environment in which there's more and more opposition to new housing and in which new housing is required to come with increasing quantities of parking to satiate parking-hungry neighbors who are angry about the public parking supply.
And that dynamic is really powerful. If you go to a community meeting in any American town where a new residential project is being discussed, the shortage of parking is always invoked as a reason to oppose. And so our inability to manage parking has produced a situation in which parking functions as a cudgel that can be wielded to keep new neighbors out of old neighborhoods.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Grabar. He's the author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Henry Grabar, author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." It's about how parking codes, parking lots and garages have shaped the landscape of cities and suburbs and also limited the creation of affordable housing.
Let's talk about shopping malls. They were, in part, the creation of a kind of idealistic vision of retail being indoors and protected from the elements, and you could go from one store to another just, like, a few steps away. So talk about that vision and how parking kind of undermined some of the goal.
GRABAR: So the shopping mall was the brainchild of a retail designer named Victor Gruen, and he was an immigrant from Vienna, Austria. And so he had come to the United States with these, you know, kind of visions of sophisticated Viennese shopping streets. And the mall was really his effort to recreate something like that in the American context. And at the time, what he saw as the trend in America were these sort of sprawling commercial districts along major arterials heading out to the suburbs where every store had its own parking lot in front of it. And you'd have to drive from one store to the next, and so on. There was never enough parking.
And the mall was his desire, really, to create what he thought was a bona fide community space, like a retail zone, but also a pedestrian district and a real - a civic space. And that was his goal. And in fact, in some of his early mall diagrams, you can see that he envisioned these big parking lots that we now see outside malls as being turned into housing and other uses. And so the mall would one day serve as the kind of center of a more mixed-use, diverse and expanded community.
GRABAR: But, of course, that never came to happen because the parking proved to be just too important. I think, you know, he didn't really think this through. But it turns out that if you put, you know, a hundred shops in the middle of the suburbs, miles and miles from the people who are going to be patronizing those stores, you need to provide a ton of parking. And Gruen's first malls were some of the first places that actually had color-coded or, in one case, animal-coded zones of the parking lot, because they were one of the first places in the country where you could imagine losing your car in a parking lot. That was the first time there were parking lots so big that you could lose a car.
And he wound up being very disillusioned by the way his malls had progressed. And I think by the end of his career, he saw them as essentially cannibalizing center city retail for these - what ended up being relatively homogenous zones on the periphery that did not, in fact have, a symbiotic or really any relationship at all with the surrounding territory, in part because they were surrounded by such large parking lots.
GROSS: Let's get to the part about mobsters, money laundering, tax evasion and theft. And I'm thinking here about garages. Why do garages lend themselves to financial crimes?
GRABAR: Well, for many years, parking was the largest all-cash business in the United States. And I think anytime you've got a lot of cash bouncing around, there is an opportunity for - you know, for cooking the books. And I guess the beautiful thing about garages is that it goes both ways, right? Like, you could - you can either overreport the number of drivers who are coming in and how long they're staying and use a garage to launder money, or you can underreport how many drivers are coming in, how long they're staying and use the garage profits for tax evasion. So you've got either option at your disposal.
And I guess maybe another point to make about that is that a garage is not like a pizza place where you would have records of how much cheese you bought from a supplier and how many slices you sold because you're moving, you know, an actual quantity of a fixed good. I mean, it's all very opaque, right? Like, you're talking about measures of time, how long somebody has been in the garage. It's all - that can be pretty flexible stuff, as some of the scams that I recount in the book demonstrate.
GROSS: What is one of your favorite parking garage scandals?
GRABAR: Well, since you're in Philadelphia, we have to talk about the Philadelphia airport scandal. And one thing you should understand about airports is that parking revenue is often the largest single source of income for airports. I mean, more than the planes themselves. They're essentially giant, profitable parking garages with a sort of side hustle in aviation. What happened in Philadelphia was called one of the largest rip-offs to ever hit the city. And basically, these guys who were working at the garage realized that, first of all, it was an all-cash business and second of all, that these paper tickets were being printed out.
So you would park your car at the Philadelphia airport for a week while you went on vacation to California, and you'd come back and you'd have this ticket that was saying that you owed them $150 or whatever. And what they would do is they would print a bunch of new tickets saying that, in fact, you'd only been parked. There for a few hours. So you would pay the $150, but they would put you in the books as only having been there for a few hours and owing $10. That extra $140, that went straight into somebody's pocket.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Like, OK, how many times can you do this? How many times can you double count and, you know, pocket the difference between real long-term parking and what you're putting in the books, which is a bunch of short-term parking? But the answer is hundreds and hundreds of times a day. And estimates are - eventually, when this case went to trial - they were doing this for over a thousand tickets a week. And at the end of the day, investigators concluded that they had pocketed more than $3 million in parking fees.
GROSS: We talked a little bit about on-the-street parking and why it's so hard to find and how everybody goes crazy looking for a spot, especially in cities. I'm interested in hearing what you learned about how cities decide how much to pay per hour and what hours to have parking legal and how long you're allowed to stay there in a spot. Because, like, in Philly, at different times a day, you might be able to not park at all or park for two hours or park for three hours. And if three-hour parking is allowed and you have an app, you can keep extending the time. But also, if it's two-hour parking, when the two hours expires, you can extend that time, too, and turn it into three hours. You just have to re-up on your app. So what's the logic behind how cities make decisions about, you know, meters and pricing and hours?
GRABAR: I have often asked myself that very question. I think it's pretty inscrutable at times. I think it's extremely confusing when you arrive in a new city and all of a sudden you find yourself in front of a sign that's four feet tall, and you have to - it's like a - you know, one of those, like, logic problems - if this, then that, but only if - in cases of X or Y. But I can tell you how I think the reformers believe that this system ought to be run, which is the point of parking, right?
Why do we pay for parking? Let's go back a second. The reason that paid parking was invented was not to take all of drivers' money, right? Like, if you wanted to do that, you could just put a tax on new car sales or a tax on tires or something like that or a tax on registrations, right? There are other ways to get money from drivers than parking. But what parking meters can do is they can organize the way parking functions at the curb level. And in fact, they are the only method we have of organizing how people will park.
The parking meter was invented in 1935 by an Oklahoma City newspaper editor, and what he realized looking out his window was that there was this busy commercial strip, and the cars would arrive first thing in the morning. And they would be driven by employees at those stores, and they would park there, and they would take up all the spots. And by the time the day got going and the clients showed up, there was no place for them to park. And this was because the parking was free, and it had been taken up first thing in the morning. And so they got frustrated. They went around the block and at the end of the day, perhaps they even took their business out to an early suburban mall. And that's obviously the city's worst nightmare.
So what he came up with was this system where by charging even a small amount for that coveted street parking in the best locations, you can encourage drivers who plan to park all day to park a little further away, right? It doesn't need to be that much money, but if you can just get rid of those all-day parkers, then you create room for people who arrive in the middle of the day, and they're able to find a parking space. And I think that is the prototype of how street parking ought to be run. You're trying to sort people by how long they need to park. And you want the longer parkers further away because a five-minute walk means less when you're spending eight hours someplace. And you want the short-term parkers, deliveries in particular, to have access to the curb right in front of the place they're going when they need it. And if that cost a few dollars, the idea is, well, people will find that that's worth it. And if it's not worth it, well, you know, lower it to 50 cents.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Henry Grabar, author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Henry Grabar, author of the new book "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." It's about how parking codes, parking lots and garages have shaped the landscape of cities and suburbs and limited the creation of affordable housing.
Some people are trying to reenvision what city streets might look like if there was less on-the-street parking, and that includes reenvisioning what curbsides would look like. What are some of those visions?
GRABAR: The one that comes first to mind, of course, is what we saw during the pandemic summer in 2020 when people were nervous about eating inside and all the restaurants opened up seating in their parking areas. And for me, that was a revelatory moment because I had become aware over the course of writing this book that there was something weird going on here, where urban real estate prices were higher than ever, and yet this space at the curb, this public space, which in some cases was the most valuable land in an American city on a square foot basis, was being given away for nothing, provided you used it for one thing, which was storing your car there all day. And so there's a natural kind of arbitrage going on there. And you see people taking advantage of this going back to the 1960s and '70s. I'm thinking about things like ice cream trucks, taco trucks, like, people selling things out of the curb. Like, there's this realization that if this space is going to be free, like, maybe I should try and take advantage of that and run a little business here.
And then in 2020, you see that realization go mainstream with all these restaurants that had previously considered their parking to be an absolute untouchable asset, right? Like, you know, you want to take away parking for a bike lane, they would they would tell you had blood on your hands. And then suddenly in 2020, they decide, you know what? Maybe it doesn't need to be parking after all. Maybe it could be restaurant seating.
And I think that's a - that was a wake-up call for city planners. It was a wake-up call for for some of those restaurants themselves. And it was also a wake-up call for regular people to see this space through another set of eyes and think, well, you know, maybe it could be something besides curb parking. It's been curb parking for 100 years, so it can be difficult to imagine what might happen at the curb if we were to decide to do something else with it.
GROSS: What do you think can happen there besides restaurants?
GRABAR: I think one of the most urgent needs for cities is to plant more trees. I think that's a - that's something that will help them adapt to climate change, shade the streets, clean the air, and perhaps most importantly, help them deal with these series of increasingly intense rainstorms that we've seen that have brought flooding to many urban neighborhoods. And one of the reasons that the urban flooding problem is so bad is that so much land has been paved over to make way for parking. And so if you begin to take some of those curb spaces and you decide, you know, we're going to use this space to plant greenery that can soak up some of that water, it can catch rainstorms where they fall before they overload the sewer system and flood people's houses. So that to me seems like an obvious possibility.
And then perhaps a broader conception of that would just be to say, create more public space. You know, I think while it is important that we have access at the curb for people who need to drive up and perhaps, you know, can't park four or five blocks away for one reason or another, there's an enormous possibility here to create space for people. I'm thinking about, like, places kids can play, bike lanes, things that would help us reimagine a city in which parking was slightly less important and in which there were more options to get around some other way.
GROSS: I want to ask you about bike lanes, because I appreciate that there are bike lanes. And I appreciate that a lot of people are bicycling. It's good for the environment. It's good for, you know, parking and traffic. It's easier for the people who are bicycling to get to and from places because they don't need to buy a car, which is so expensive, and so on. At the same time, some bike lanes are just really poorly designed. And it's really unsafe for the bicyclist and often unsafe for the driver. And, I mean, for example, whether the bike lane is on the right or the left of the lane or lanes with the car, when you have to turn in the direction of the bike lane, it's really dangerous because, you know, typically, when you're driving, there's no traffic on the side that you're turning from, you know? You're in the lane where there's no moving cars to your right. But there might be bicyclists there now. Have you seen, like, a sensible kind of bike lane?
GRABAR: I'm glad you mentioned that, Terry, because something happened a few days ago in Brooklyn that's been on my mind. A father of two was biking home from a grocery store in Brooklyn. And he was killed by a truck driver turning right across a bike lane. His name was Adam Uster. And I've been on that bike lane many times myself. It was, in fact, my route home from work for many years. And I continue to be surprised that cities keep drawing out facilities like this and calling them safe places to bike when they really, evidently, are not. It is possible to create a safe space for biking where people turning across the bike lane perhaps have to wait for a different signal to make that turn or something like that. I mean, it's not nuclear engineering. It's not rocket science. We can figure this out.
There are cities that have built safe bike lanes, New York isn't one of them. And then you come to the question, well, why isn't it one of them? One of the people I talked to in my book lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And he made it his mission to build a bike lane on Central Park West because a girl riding a city bike had been run over and killed by a garbage truck there several years before. And building this bike lane, which happened, by the way, required taking 200 parking spaces. And that became a source of major conflict in the community. In fact, there was a lawsuit filed by a condo board along this route. And to me, that conflict says a lot about our priorities.
GROSS: You've raised the question, do people really want all this parking? Or is this just a function of, like, parking codes or old habits? So do you have an answer to that?
GRABAR: I've thought a lot about that question when I was writing this book. And I think it applies to the general American suburban pattern at large, right? Like, do Americans want ample parking and a two-car garage and a house in the suburbs? And perhaps a parking ruin downtown is the price that we've paid for that preference. But in places that have decided that they're going to relax their rules around parking, we've seen a remarkable change. For example, Seattle in 2012 decided that builders no longer had to provide parking near transit. And one of the reasons they did that was they concluded that parking made up something like 10% to 20% of the rent in these buildings, was just parking.
And after they did that, yes, builders still built parking. This is America, after all. Many people own cars. But they built 40% less parking than had previously been required. And that just goes to show that the law is pushing us to create more parking than the market demands. And that parking they didn't build, by the way, they built 18,000 fewer parking spaces. And they saved half a billion dollars. So that's half a billion dollars that gets passed into lower rents and lower construction costs and encourages more housing in some of our most expensive cities. So I think that's an example of how, yes, people want parking, but they don't want quite as much parking as we've been telling them to build.
GROSS: Henry Grabar, thank you so much for joining us.
GRABAR: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Henry Grabar's new book is called "Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains The World." He covers housing, transportation and urban policy for Slate. After we take a short break, TV critic David Bianculli will review Pete Davidson's new semi-autobiographical series, "Bupkis." It co-stars Edie Falco as his mother and Joe Pesci as his grandfather. This is FRESH AIR.
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