With Americans Driving Less, What Will Happen to the Parking Lot?

Cities are finding creative uses for these environmentally unfriendly spaces.

Parking lots and spaces are a necessary evil of city living. They can be hard to find, take up a lot of valuable space and are symbols of their car-dependent stepchild, the suburb. Yet parking spots always seem to be in demand. A mix of new attitudes, needs and technology, however, is challenging the status quo of how and why we park in cities.

Take, for instance, the recent news that demand for parking spaces at rental apartment buildings in downtown Chicago have fallen significantly in the past three years, part of a decade-long slide in demand, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. While it’s not entirely clear why demand is dropping (condo developers continue to offer a space for every owner), there are some broad trends that indicate America’s love for cars -- and spaces to park them -- may have finally maxed out.

Young Americans no longer are as devoted to cars as their parents and grandparents once were. The average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (ages 16-34) in the U.S. decreased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009. It seems more Americans are commuting by public transit. It also seems Americans are buying fewer cars. Yes, auto sales have crept back up since 2008 to more than 14.4 million annually, but that’s still far below the annual average of nearly 17 million cars sold during the nine years leading up to the recession.

With Americans driving fewer cars and more commuters opting to bike, use public transit or telecommute, demand for parking will drop over time, predicts The Washington Post
. Until that moment arrives, however, cities are beginning to look at new technologies that make it easier to find a parking spot in congested downtowns. So-called smart parking changes the price of a parking space based on demand. Smart parking is considered so promising that IBM, the Citi banking group and Streetline, a wireless software firm, have partnered to provide $25 million in financing to cities that plan to adopt the technology.

So what does a city do with a potential parking space surplus? Some have already begun to reconfigure streets so that what were once parking spaces are now bike lanes. On weekends, municipal parking lots in many cities become community farmers markets or sites for temporary events, such as a concert or craft show.

But if you think parking spaces and lots in cities will gradually disappear, think again. Eran Ben-Joseph, author of Rethinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking, estimates there are 500 million surface-lot parking spaces in the U.S., covering an area that is larger than Puerto Rico. They are ugly, environmentally unfriendly, waste space and are very cheap to build. Just because we’re stuck with them, however, doesn’t mean they can’t be “modest paradises,” Ben-Joseph writes. “Designed with conscious intent, parking lots could actually become significant public spaces, contributing as much to their communities as great boulevards, parks or plazas.”

Homepage photo via Shutterstock

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.