A Great View If You Like Parking Lots

In our podcast “Parking Is Hell,” we explored how the overwhelming demand for parking space has a lot of downsides. One big problem is that city centers can feel as if they’re practically held hostage by parking lots and garages. I was in Minneapolis the other day, and here are four pictures taken from the window of my hotel room. It’s not exactly a view that makes the heart skip … 







Can you imagine what this downtown might look like without all those parking garages? Bring on the driverless car! If our cars have the ability to drop us off and pick us up with the swipe of a touchscreen, what will these acres and acres and acres of city land turn into? 

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  1. NZ says:

    I heartily agree (though I’m biased because I dislike urban environments altogether), but I do think it’s worth noticing that parking lots at least have a nice orderly look to them, at least from up high. There’s something calming about all those little cars neatly parked in a row, with those little spaces and lanes for them to move into or though. I especially like the look of that curly-cue ramp in the last two pictures, leading to the pristine uninhabited parking lot roof in the distance.

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  2. James says:

    I can’t see as how removing the parking lots & garages would improve the view at all. You’d still see nothing but buildings, and probably closer.

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    • Yannick says:

      Hahaha you’re crazy

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      • James says:

        Well, I know that :-) But as I said below, it’s simple economics. If the owner of a parking lot or garage can’t make an acceptable ROI from it, it will be converted to some use that will return a profit. In a (non-depressed) city, that almost certainly will be a multi-story office or apartment building.

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    • Daniel Keough says:

      Without the cost of off-street parking $15,000 for EACH space or more, depending on how HIGH the garage is, how DEEP it is being built and the surrounding environment.

      Without city zoning laws mandating parking there is not only more SPACE for other things, which can include housing, businesses, but also GREENSPACE…AND when less parking is built and more apts. or commercial space there is more property tax paid to support municipalities AND because of lower cost per unit of commercial space and/or apartments, the developer can afford (and have physical barriers removed from) BETTER DESIGN including greenspace (which can certainly be part of zoning changes which remove Min. Parking Req. for developments. I rather pay a few thousand for landscaping of a better looking building than be forced to pay $15k x 20? 50? some requirements are really high.

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  3. Vern says:

    A city full of parking lots is one that is easy to drive to, but often not worth arriving at.

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  4. Nick J. says:

    Look at those pictures and imagine how pristine it would look to have all those parking lots replaced with outdoor gardens, parks, and greenspace for people to eat lunch in and take walks through during lunch breaks. With the contrast of the tall, glass and steel buildings, it would be a beautiful sight to see.

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    • James says:

      Except that wouldn’t happen: the parking lots & garages would be replaced by more tall glass & steel buildings. Simple economics :-)

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      • Daniel Keough says:

        I agree it may be simple economics, BUT a point is being missed: the developers did NOT choose to build the parking, the city MADE THEM. There are minimum parking requirements–forcing owners to build extra parking despite proximity to public transit , etc.

        So a change in zoning could mandate green space, which many developers would LOVE to put up instead spending a fraction of what they would spend building parking lots or very very expensive parking garages that can start at $15,000 for EACH space.

        Change zoning to do away with burdensome min parking requirements, mandate appropriately thought out green (not just a patch of lawn) and public spaces.

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  5. LD says:

    There is suburban sprawl in the Twin Cities. Most people who work downtown don’t live near there and don’t have public transportation to get there even if they wanted. Nor is it simply a matter of building out the transportation infrastructure. The Twin Cities is so spread out that it truly is impractical to have public transit that can replace cars for even a majority of people.

    There is a new line going in near where I live but even that is so far away that it’s impractical to walk. I could drive there but that’s of little benefit because it’s out of the way and I could simply drive for 10 more minutes and be parked downtown or wait 30+ minutes to take the bus or light rail after I’ve boarded.

    Personally I’d like to see parking less out in the open and a combination of buried or the first several floors of a skyscraper without exposed roofs. Just northwest of those pics is the huge downtown parking garage that span something like 6 city blocks. An interstate literally terminates into the garage.

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  6. Peter says:

    What’s that tennis court doing there in image #4?!? That’s valuable parking lot space!

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  7. Parker says:

    Your idea to render parking garages obsolete would require a driverless car that drives workers to work and drops them off, drives itself home, drives itself back to the workplace at the end of the working day, then drives the worker home. This does not seem feasible for several reasons. First, you are doubling fuel consumption by adding a second round-trip drive to the current commute, causing a massive waste of oil, tire tread, and fuel (whether gasoline, electricity, or whatever) and doubling wear-and-tear on both cars and roads. Second, doubling the miles driven will double the expected accident rate, including injuries and deaths to passengers and pedestrians, even if driverless cars have lower rates than human-driven cars. Third, you would increase traffic during commute times, causing needless delays for the transit of other passengers and goods. Besides, there already is a driverless car that would eliminate the need for parking garages if everyone used them: it’s called a bus (or light rail, train, or subway).

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    • NZ says:

      Basically I agree with you.

      But what if there was a ring of discreet parking garages just outside the city center–maybe ones specially designed to house driverless cars–so the driverless car didn’t have to return all the way to the suburbs? True, that requires extra infrastructure to be built, but would it be less than the costs you mentioned?

      One point of disagreement:

      I wish people would stop talking about buses and trains as though they are ready alternatives to cars.

      The best part about driving my own car is not having to share a vehicle with the people who ride on buses and trains. Not only that, but in my own car I can enjoy peace and quiet, privacy, my own music or talk show, personalized climate control, and I only have to smell or see what exists in my car by my own choosing. I don’t have to be so aggressively reminded of the “anthros” against whom I proudly–but, it should be said, quite reasonably and naturally–hold my misanthropy.

      My car waits less than 10 feet from the front door of my house and drops me off less than 50 feet from the front door of my office. My car is always there ready to go exactly when I want. If I wish or need to make a stop or a detour, my car will oblige me without any further inconvenience. My choice of car and how or whether I decorate it gives me the option to express or conceal anything about my identity that I want. In some cases, the monthly cost of gas and insurance is much lower than the cost of a metro pass. I can take my car just about anywhere, notably to places where there are no rail or bus lines. Driving a car is fun and engaging (especially if it’s a stick shift). And should I get in an accident, I will not fly into hard seats and poles, but am restrained by a seatbelt and surrounded by airbags.

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      • NZ says:

        Oh yeah, and my car doubles as a storage locker for my coat, a set of tools, a small collection of maps, my hunting knife, half my CD collection, and my frisbee.

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      • Harper says:

        Your Frisbee?

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      • NZ says:

        Yeah, my frisbee. 80 gram, ultimate standard. Never know when I’ll find myself at a park with a few friends and remember, Hey, I’ve got my frisbee in the trunk!

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      • nrojb says:

        *175 gram

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      • NZ says:

        Haha, yeah of course 175 gram! Jeez, it’s been sitting in my trunk too long, I forgot the number!

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      • NZ says:

        By the way, let me preemptively refute the argument “But cars are a big up-front expense you haven’t accounted for.”

        I think it’s an expense that cancels out because most commuters, unless they already live in a high rise downtown and don’t plan to move away for many years, will eventually need a car anyway.

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      • Maria says:

        My bike waits less than 10 feet from the front door of my house and drops me off 15 feet from the front door of my office. My bike is always there ready to go exactly when I want. If I wish or need to make a stop or a detour, my bike will oblige me without any further inconvenience. My choice of bike and how or whether I decorate it gives me the option to express or conceal anything about my identity that I want. The monthly cost of gas and insurance is nothing (okay, bicycle maintenance can cost a couple hundred dollars a year). I can take my bike just about anywhere, notably to places where there are no rail or bus lines. Riding a bike is fun and engaging (especially if it’s a really nice, well-tuned commuter). Okay, an accident would be a problem, but care and good lighting, obeying traffic laws, using available trails and lanes, and riding with the assumption that 1. you’re invisible, and 2. you can’t trust any thing with a motor, help to diminish the risk. And okay, weather is an issue, but I feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and empowerment by cycling to work as much as I can. And I have great legs.

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      • NZ says:


        I think bikes are a potentially great sole transportation option for all the reasons you stated, provided that

        1) the weather is almost always decent–not too hot, not too cold, not too wet
        2) you don’t live too far from anywhere you ever need to go
        3) there is a workable bike route to anywhere you need to go that isn’t too dangerous
        4) the terrain is reasonable–going up and down steep grades or gravelly roads would exponentially increase the difficulty of a commute
        5) you don’t ever need to carry more than will comfortably fit in a backpack, and don’t have anything to store while you’re away from your bike
        6) you don’t need to go many places at night
        7) it’s okay to arrive at your job a bit sweaty and winded
        8) you have no mobility or sensory issues that would prevent you from riding a bike safely
        9) you own one heck of a bike lock
        10) you don’t mind being too hot, too cold, too wet, unable to listen to soft music, and unable to eat most fingerfood while getting around.

        Otherwise, if you commute by bike you probably also need a car.

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    • Taylor S. Marks says:

      All vehicles need to be parked somewhere – for at least maintenance if not storage. I know where plenty of bus and subway depots are… not exactly sure where the trains go when they need maintenance (I’ve never seen the building.)

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    • Dave says:

      I would want my car to go to the nearest Walmart (or other grocery store) and park there until I summon it. Naturally those places will want to restrict or at least charge a fee for this. Parking lots would exist on less expensive real-estate.

      Small tangent: Why are grocery store parking lots so big? Here in Ohio, there are some that are HUGE and I have never seen them full.

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    • James says:

      Better yet, why go there at all? I’d bet that there is nothing done in the majority of those buildings (bar janitorial services :-)) that couldn’t be done just as well from the other end of an internet connection.

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      • NZ says:

        I’m an on and off telecommuter, and it stinks. It’s hard to be motivated, it’s hard to collaborate, and it’s too easy to slack off or get distracted when you’re working from home. Granted, I loathe the idea of having to drive into an urban center –I’d much rather work in a suburban office park–but being there in person one way or another really does help in all kinds of ways. That’s the whole shenanigans Yahoo just went through.

        As for why certain cities continue to dominate as centers of economic gravity, I think a lot of that has to do with image and powerful people wanting to be around other powerful people.

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      • James says:

        I’ve been telecommuting exclusively for… gee, almost a decade now? and part-time for a decade before that. My experience is just the opposite: it’s far easier to slack off in a 9-5 office environment, with trips to the water cooler, long discussions of non-work related stuff with co-workers, internet surfing on company time ’cause you’re just not into working right now… And add the inevitable distractions from all your co-workers in neighboring cubicles doing these things, when you actually want to work. Whereas if not in a working mood while telecommuting, I can work in the garden or go for a hike (and it’s amazing how many work-related problems I solve when hiking – I think it’s the increased blood flow to the brain), then work until 2 am when my brain’s engaged.

        And collaboration is, if not easier, at least more of an actual collaboration, because when you email, your ideas are not drowned out by the inevitable motormouth who interrupts everyone else in mid-sentence.

        As for Yahoo, I haven’t seen anything on the aftermath. How many employees did they lose, and how has their productivity changed? Helps to have data, rather than news reports of a new CEO trying to make a splash.

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      • NZ says:

        I think those are all attractive features of telecommuting you mentioned, but they don’t refute the fact that telecommuting isn’t going to be for everyone. That fact alone disproves your claim that “there is nothing done in the majority of those buildings that couldn’t be done just as well from the other end of an internet connection.” In theory you may be mostly right, but in practice, as experience shows, you are not.

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      • James says:

        I disagree, obviously. Maybe the difference is between THE TASK being done as well at the end of an internet connection by a telecommuting-capable person, and YOU being able to do it as well by telecommuting? Perhaps someday the inability to work effectively over a remote connection will be considered as much a disability as being unable to drive or use a keyboard is today.

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      • NZ says:

        James, you get nothing but thumbs ups from me for making excellent points.

        Nevertheless, it seems we already agree: Some people just aren’t very good at working independently out of their homes, and I’m one of them. I get distracted easily by my wife or daughter, I don’t push myself as hard because I feel so comfortable and insulated, and while I have confidence in MY ability to communicate effectively via email I have found that this ability is not very common, and so I often find that what a supervisor asks of me in person is totally different from what they wrote.

        I also think that when it comes to collaborating, the tools available for telecommuters pale in comparison to being able to talk with your hands or grab a notebook and sketch an idea for someone sitting across the table–signals which, in person, always reach their audience in the finest resolution detectable, at the speed of light, and without any technical glitches.

        Thus, like I said, telecommuting isn’t for everyone, which is why many jobs cannot be done just as well from the other end of an internet connection.

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    • Ray says:

      There are a lot of assumptions in your scenario and I’m not sure all of them apply. Maybe early on in the driverless car era, but eventually not. First, many families will realize that they can get by with one driverless car. Second, perhaps people will not even own cars at all, but subscribe to a car service. I imagine that will be cheaper in the long run and would ameliorate your second and third concerns (although not eliminate them, the imbalance of where people want to be when would still exist). The driverless car is going to be a disruptive game-changer.

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    • Erik says:

      When people (like me) say that driverless cars will solve parking (render virtually all parking spaces unnecessary) we’re talking about driverless taxi services, not individually owned driverless cars.

      Right now you can’t drive to work, drop yourself off at the front door, and then let the car go off and take other people on their errands, because the keys stay in your pocket. It’s _your car_.

      Imagine Uber (mobile phone controlled, on-demand, brain dead easy to use taxi service) but about 1/4 of the cost because there’s no human driving the car that needs to pay his bills. That car never needs to be “parked”… it only sits somewhere waiting for the next person to summon it.

      If 97% of the time a car is parked, then only 3% of cars on average are being used at any given time. Let’s say at the peak (rush hour) it’s as high as 20% — that’s still 4/5ths of cars that don’t need to exist if we “share” by simply paying for rides by the mile. If we had 20% as many cars, we’d need 20% as many parking spots (if they did need to park while waiting, instead of just pulling over). We’d also no longer needing the 4-5 parking spots per car that we now have, because each business doesn’t need to build parking for peak usage — that one hour of the day or one day a month that all of their spots are full. We’d need at most 1 parking spot per car, which would again reduce parking down to 20-25% of current numbers.

      20% * 25% (conservatively) = 5% as many parking spaces as we currently have — and they can be on low-value land, rather than taking up prime real estate next to important destinations.

      So to answer your question (objection), when you talk about self-driving cars, most of us are thinking of self-driving taxis, which we expect to replace conventional driving, and which will likely eventually eliminate 95% or more of the current parking space need.

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  8. Sam says:

    Not sure how the driverless car will solve the parking issue. Do you want it driving around the streets all day burning fuel and creating pollution and creating congestion? Or does it drive home and come back to get you? The latter also burns fuel and pollution.

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