Something struck me as odd while recently viewing the 1971 dystopian thriller The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston—odd in addition to the fact that I was watching it at all. In the opening-credit sequence the logo of the film’s distributor appears: The “WB” of Warner Bros., but overlaid with a banner reading “A Kinney Leisure Service.” I had never seen this version of the logo before and had never heard of Kinney Leisure Service. Once the movie started I promptly forgot about it. I would probably have never thought about it again except that Kinney comes up in Henry Grabar’s Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. Kinney Leisure Service, as Grabar explains, grew out of a Newark, New Jersey, parking-garage business that by 1969 had become so big that it was able to acquire the venerable but financially ailing Hollywood studio. The branding arrangement was short-lived, however: a financial scandal involving price-fixing at its parking operations prompted Kinney to rename the movie company Warner Communications Inc. in 1972.
The story is just one—many entertaining, others depressing, some infuriating—that Grabar uses to show that his subtitle doesn’t entirely overstate the case. Kinney for a time also owned Panavision, Elektra Records, DC Comics, and Mad magazine. Maybe parking really does explain the world. It’s not just in the fortunes to be made, or in the corruption that historically attends it. (For a time, parking was the largest all-cash business in the United States, and thus ripe for fraud: Grabar details a scam run by operators of the parking garages at Philadelphia International Airport from 1990 to ’94 that netted them more than $3 million in unreported parking receipts.) There’s also the way that parking has dictated a century of American transportation policy, hollowed out cities and brought sprawl to the suburbs, and hastened climate change while also worsening its effects. Parking has ruined political careers, wrecked local economies, and thwarted the development of affordable housing. And all of this while inducing more and more people to take to their cars instead of walk, bicycle, or use public transit—which post-Covid appears to be contributing to an emerging epidemic of loneliness in our country.
It should be said that Grabar, a staff writer for Slate, professes to not be anti-car. But he is clear about the need to rethink our approach to how cars are stored when they’re not in use, which is approximately 97 percent of the time. He presents other surprising statistics. At any given moment on New York City streets, thirty-three percent of the drivers are just looking for a place to park. A 2017 study found that U.S. drivers spend seventeen hours a year searching for a spot. Yet by square footage, Grabar writes, “there is more housing for each car in the United States than there is housing for each person.” Phoenix alone has more than 12 million parking spaces, about three per person. All the asphalt for all the approximately 1 billion parking spots around the country is enough to cover the state of Connecticut two times over.
When we’re trying to find a place to leave our car—on the doorstep of our destination, ideally—we experience parking as a scarcity, the elusive empty spot a stake to be claimed. Grabar presents as one example New York’s notoriously stress-inducing alternate-side-of-the-street parking rules, which can influence car owners’ day-to-day schedules for weeks to come. He reports on the custom, in cities like Boston, of drivers leaving a chair or table in a spot they cleaned of snow to keep it for themselves—the shoveler becomes the owner, at least until everything melts or the furniture is needed back inside. He also notes, more seriously, the violent and occasionally deadly confrontations arising from arguments over who saw a spot first. But parking, as someone in a theoretically twice-paved-over Connecticut might be able to attest to, is actually not scarce. Far from a shortage, this country is awash in parking, much of it free or priced too low. And that, Grabar argues, is the problem.
How did it get this way? In part out of utopian good will, or at any rate, the self-regard that occasionally spawns it. Grabar dedicates a chapter to the Austrian-born modernist architect Victor Gruen, sometimes known as the father of the mall. Enlisted mid-century to address the commerce-limiting effects of insufficient parking in urban commercial districts—already there were too many cars in American downtowns—he championed the building of giant shopping centers beyond city limits. These weren’t meant merely as places to buy things, but rather, in his grand conception, to be “an essentially urban environment” that might also include a nursery school, post office, library, and other cosmopolitan amenities. For a long time, Gruen, something of an egomaniac, was able to seduce local officials around the country by invoking grand European thoroughfares and public spaces, comparing one proposed development to Venice’s Piazza San Marco. He envisioned “new walking habits” being formed—no matter, as Grabar points out, that people would have to drive, and find parking, in order to develop those habits. In anticipation of this influx, one early mall was developed with the then-unheard-of number of 8,000 parking spots. But even as Gruen’s vision was already leading to sprawl, cities began to clamor for their own malls too, along with the requisite parking designed to shiny suburban standards. The consequences were predictable, as shopping complexes built with drivers in mind further decimated the urban downtowns that city officials were trying to resuscitate. By the end of his life Gruen came to despise what had been wrought, bemoaning “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking.”
Yet by this point it was already an article of faith that more parking was not only better, but also necessary, a “tradition passed down from generation to generation and copied from town to town,” as Grabar writes. Eventually that tradition was packaged up and presented as a scientific discipline with the 1985 publication of The Parking Generation Manual by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. Grabar calls it the book “where America’s bad parking ideas were codified and disseminated.” Relying on untested methodology and the dubious theory of “trip generation,” the ITE’s manual essentially hooked civic planners on calling for, and building, far more parking than necessary. This explains the tundras of pavement surrounding solitary outposts of retail, the acres of vapor-lit asphalt ringing office parks occupied just forty hours a week, and apartment complexes with three times as many parking spaces as habitable units. A related issue is the emergence of “parking-minimum” policies that so many municipalities adopted for new residential construction, which has had the direct and measurable effect of suppressing the development of affordable housing. The allocation and construction of parking is an expensive proposition, and the money that goes into creating every mandated 300-square-foot spot to accommodate a nonexistent or anticipated vehicle has to be recouped somehow—or rather, in the only way possible: charge more for each apartment. Grabar spends a lot of time on this topic, looking at its most pernicious examples (and they are numerous), but also pointing out those instances where better sense has prevailed. Some cities, including Los Angeles, have learned that parking minimums are bad housing policy, and legislation has even been proposed in Congress that would curtail the practice.
Whether or not parking explains the world, it has certainly ruined much of it. Yet Grabar keeps the mood of his analysis relatively upbeat. In addition to having the facts at hand Grabar has a knack for narrative and letting real-life characters animate the stories. Familiar figures like Jane Jacobs make obligatory appearances, as do transportation-wonk faves like Donald Shoup, viewed as a guru for steering us off parking’s road to perdition. Writing in the midst of the pandemic, Grabar also got to see what can emerge out of contingency and improvisation: a reimagining of curb space and parking lots as places for people to dine, recreate, hear music, connect. And in the bargain: a reimagining of the economics of parking, starting with charging more for the real estate needed to store cars. Why should a convenience that has such deleterious effects be prioritized, incentivized, and subsidized? Make people pay for parking—or pay a lot more—and the problem of parking may begin to solve itself.
Or not. Parking wouldn’t even be a thing if it weren’t for cars, and as long as they’re around, they’ll need a place to be put. Former New York City transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, no slouch herself when it comes to reimagining the way we move about, also makes an appearance in Grabar’s book, expounding helpfully on what she sees as hopeful ways forward. Grabar quotes a sage observation she once made about our peculiar obsession: “A millennium from now, archaeologists examining pictures of parked cars will be convinced that vehicles were sacred cultural totems based on the way we lined our public spaces with them, like so many statues, and built structures to house them.” The Egyptians bequeathed their pyramids, the Greeks the Acropolis. We’ll confer our vast sheets of pavement and multi-decked garages.
How Parking Explains the World
$30 | 368 pp.