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.