getting around

Free the Curb!

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In a country with six parking spots for every vehicle, car storage is ubiquitous and pernicious, yet even in New York City, the least car-dependent place in the country, the ability to leave your car at the curb for free became something like a birthright in the 1950s. “Land in Manhattan was the most valuable in the world,” Henry Grabar writes in his new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, “but it was free if you wanted to use it for just one thing: storing your car on the street.” But before you blame the drivers, endlessly circling, forever in search of validation (aren’t we all?), Grabar proposes directing that ire toward the architects of parking-lot urbanism: city officials who cling to bad transportation policy and antiquated development codes that engrain our dependence on cars. I talked to Grabar about the raging against the garage, how eliminating parking minimums can combat the housing crisis, and why we should all be paying more to park our cars in public.

Let’s just get right into it: Should parking be free? 

There’s a perception that there’s something inequitable about charging for parking — on a superficial level, it feels like one more thing in the city that has a price tag. But to me what’s actually unfair is all the externalities created by the shortage of parking. There are people who really do need convenient, on-street parking: If you look at people who actually use cars for work, it’s not good that they cannot find a place to park. There’s nothing egalitarian about some guy driving a truck in New York who has $10,000 in parking fines every year because there’s nowhere for him to load out. I think anybody who works with their car would relish a system in which there was a parking spot available on every block.

So the goal is making parking easier and in the places where you actually want it to be located — but less free. Like a “quality over quantity” thing. 

I was talking to Mark Lawrence, the guy who started SpotHero, the parking-finding app. He was saying it’s so crazy that every trip we make — the “we” who live in big cities — we don’t know where we’re going to park. You’re going to get in your vehicle, you’re going to go to the place, but you don’t know where you’re going to leave your car. It’s something you just have to figure out when you get there. It’s very weird to have this much uncertainty built into the system.

And even if you try to park for free, you can often end up paying anyway. 

Parking is like this extra charge at the end of your trip. Extra money and extra time. Google Maps tells you exactly when you’ll arrive at your destination — how many great minds and millions of bytes of data and real-time traffic information have gone into predicting that? It’s astonishing. But it doesn’t account for parking. This is why parking remains a subject where there’s a great premium for local knowledge in a way there no longer is for driving. The idea of the driving shortcut doesn’t really exist anymore, but knowing where to find free parking remains a local point of pride.

Tickets are also the cost of free parking. 

I looked up these statistics sometime in the last decade, and New York City made twice as much in enforcement as it did from metered revenue. And so what that shows is that, to some extent, cities benefit from parking chaos. They don’t want you to actually be able to find a spot because when you can’t find a spot and you park illegally, they’re going to make money. That is just an extremely screwed-up incentive system. It’s local government at its worst, targeting citizens for fees and fines, trapping people in very serious cycles of debt.

There are two types of parkers in your book: The condor actively stalks a high-reward location. The barn owl will take what they can get — actual convenience be damned. 

I’m the barn owl. I take the first parking spot I can find, and if I have to walk five blocks and I pass three empty parking spots, that’s the price I pay for the peace of mind of just getting out of the car.

Photo: Penguin Random House

I am also a barn owl. Here in California, as in a lot of other places, we’ve finally gotten rid of our residential-parking minimums (and there’s even talk of it happening at the federal level). Do you think more of the country can start to build housing without parking — or maybe just with less parking?

A lot of cities now are voting to repeal parking minimums. I think that’s great. I don’t know if we’re going to end up building housing completely without parking. Maybe housing for the formerly homeless, in which you really need to make every single dollar that’s going into the project go toward giving people a place to live, which is so much more important than giving their car a place to live. So for those situations: extremely affordable housing, supportive housing, housing for seniors. Those are places, maybe, where we can get down to no parking spots. I think in most developments, it won’t happen. But then there’s an equity concern: Having a car is the biggest determinant of access to employment in most metro areas. So if you build affordable housing with no parking and you get a bunch of new units that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, that’s great. But now those people move in and their options for car ownership are really limited. Are you constraining their future employment possibilities? Until cities decide that they’re really getting serious about trying to enhance mobility options for people who aren’t driving, they’re going to have trouble.

Eliminating parking minimums is also being proposed as a climate solution, but like you say, it’s not just about taking garage space away. 

If these cities are expecting that they’re going to get less traffic and fewer emissions as a result of this policy, they need to walk the walk with their street design. If you just give people the opportunity to live without a car but you keep all the streets as six-lane roads where everybody’s driving 60 miles an hour, nobody’s going to feel comfortable riding a bike with their kid to get to school.

Say we actually succeed in reducing our dependence on cars. We’ve totally overbuilt our cities with parking lots and parking garages, so what do we do with them?

The tax structure is often favorable to running a parking lot. I think it would be smart to focus on incentivizing people to turn those parking lots into something rather than speculating until the time is right to sell them as part of a wave of development downtown. Cities could also try and do that as far as the existing garages go.

At the very least, we could get rid of the older garages that might be unsafe.

People already have a pretty overwhelming distaste for garage parking. People prefer to park on the curb. It’s one of the things we’ve got to get over if we want to improve the situation in cities — we need to get more of those long-term parkers into garages and preserve the curb as a point of access for people who need it when they need it.

The book ends with the pandemic as people are beginning to use our curb space to safely eat, drink, and socialize. It was a little glimpse into a possible future. But now many cities are voting to end or dramatically reduce their outdoor-dining programs. Has anything changed in the last three years? 

The window has shifted on what people think is possible. And even if there were problems with the sheds — I certainly have problems with them myself — the way to think about it is like this: Here was a free spot for somebody’s private property that’s now generating potentially hundreds of dollars in taxes for the city every day. That’s a pretty radical change in perspective. And I hope that’s what sticks around, even if the sheds don’t, because then we can decide what we actually want to do with the streets. I think there are even better uses than giving them away to restaurants.

Free the Curb!