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“Paved Paradise,” by Henry Grabar, examines the country’s obsession with parking, from its effects on urban sprawl to the violence it sometimes provokes.
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By Jennifer Szalai
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PAVED PARADISE: How Parking Explains the World, by Henry Grabar
You have undoubtedly heard of “road rage” — the kind of impetuous fury that erupts when motorists are stuck in traffic or on the move. But even when the driving ends, parking is no picnic either.
Henry Grabar opens “Paved Paradise,” his wry and revelatory new book about parking (a combination of words I never thought I would write), with a scrum that started when two cars vied for a scarce curbside spot in Queens and ended when a white Audi crashed through a bakery’s plate-glass window. Disputes over parking can turn violent; a few dozen times a year, they turn deadly.
“Parking-driven psychosis is a regular feature of American life,” Grabar writes, and it isn’t all that hard to see why. Anyone who has experienced that highly specific form of anxiety that arises from driving around and around and failing to find a spot has felt the stirrings of “a common parking urge shared by most nonhomicidal drivers” — a lizard-brain fear of being trapped in an endless search and never getting out of the car.
“A parking space is nothing less than the link between driving and life itself.” Grabar, who writes for Slate, does this now and again: elegantly stating a simple truth that undergirds the complex knot of social questions at the center of his book. The dream of the open road assumes a place to put our cars when we arrive at our destination. This is perhaps why so many Americans expect parking to be “convenient, available and free” — in other words, “perfect.” Grabar empathizes with these desires, which is partly what makes “Paved Paradise” so persuasive. Only somebody who understands the emotional power of these fantasies can gently show us how bizarre such entitlement actually is. Decades of fixation on parking have transformed our streets and our cities, none of it for the better.
Grabar’s argument is straightforward: The United States is underhoused and overparked. The economist (and “the country’s foremost parking scholar”) Donald Shoup refers to so-called parking minimums as “dark energy.” Rules that require new housing developments to build a minimum number of parking spaces have pushed up construction prices and generated sprawl. American cities tried to imitate American suburbs and then regretted it. There are now as many as six parking spaces for every car.
Parking minimums have also offered a convenient proxy for wealthy residents to object to new affordable housing in their neighborhoods. Grabar recounts a proposed development in Solana Beach, Calif., that eventually mutated to the point where a 10-unit project was required to have a whopping 53-space underground garage — and so the housing never got built. “Badmouthing the poor was a little unseemly,” Grabar writes, “but complaining about parking was morally unimpeachable.”
About 100 miles north of Solana Beach, Los Angeles had achieved the dubious distinction of being “a metropolis of more than 10 million people where it was possible to park, mostly for free, at nearly every single residence, office and business.” It also had a hollowed-out downtown to show for it — until, that is, a 1999 ordinance allowed builders to convert commercial buildings into residential ones without the obligation to provide parking. Over the next two decades, the city’s downtown population more than tripled. More than 60 vacant buildings got turned into more than 6,500 apartments. Grabar encourages us to be appropriately impressed: “That was more housing units than downtown Los Angeles had built in the previous three decades combined.”
I can already hear the chorus of skeptics who live in places like New York City. “Overparking” might be a reality in places with suburban sprawl, but what about dense environments where curbside parking is the norm, and people have to contend with crowded streets and a maze of parking regulations?
Grabar suggests that one of the problems of a city like New York is that the price of parking has it exactly backward: Garage parking is expensive, whereas curbside parking is cheap, or even free. So a motorist is encouraged to drive around from errand to errand, cruising for spots and burning fuel, instead of leaving the car in a garage and spending the rest of the day traveling by bus, bike or foot. Not to mention that most New York City households don’t own cars, and those that do don’t typically use them to commute. As Grabar puts it, “Curb parking in New York was, in reality, long-term car storage.”
Long-term car storage: It’s a phrase that might enrage some drivers, but once you stop to think about it, there is something decidedly peculiar about the special dispensation we give to curbside parking, as if car-lined streets are an irrevocable part of the natural order. We have created a landscape where people have less claim to the streets than cars do. “This was some of the most expensive land in the world,” Grabar writes. “And you could have it for free, provided you used it for just one thing: parking.”
Of course, revolutionizing our parking regime will require more than just some well-placed meters and different regulations. Public transit will have to get better; it’s infinitely harder to get people to stop driving if the alternative is to wait for an unpredictable train that never seems to come. There is also the issue of accessibility, though as one parking reformer argues, people with disabilities “are less likely to drive but more likely to have trouble finding housing.” And Grabar allows that class has become an inextricable and increasingly intractable factor when it comes to parking reform. Widening income inequality and escalating real estate prices have pushed working-class families out of city centers and toward the suburbs, where owning a car is less a privilege than a necessity. In these contexts, access to free parking can take on “a kind of egalitarian force.”
One of the book’s strangest (and most fascinating) chapters describes what happened in Chicago after 2009, when the city leased 36,000 parking meters to a group of investors led by Morgan Stanley. What was supposed to be a boon to a town desperate for cash turned out to be a bit of a bum deal, as the investors hiked the meter rates and then invoiced the city for lost revenue whenever a metered road was closed for a parade or a street fair. Chicago officials had been game to sell because the meter rates had been kept so low that they were hardly generating any money — realizing too late that the city should have raised prices and kept the money for public use.
“The meter saga,” Grabar writes, “showed how little anyone — politicians, drivers, the press — had seriously considered the price of parking.” Or, in the immortal words of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” (a song that has already given this book its perfect title): “Don’t it always seem to go/That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”
Audio produced by Kate Winslett.
PAVED PARADISE: How Parking Explains the World | By Henry Grabar | Illustrated | 346 pp. | Penguin Press | $30
Jennifer Szalai is the nonfiction book critic for The Times. @jenszalai
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