This is a guest post from George Weeks reviewing the book Paved Paradise by Henry Grabar (Penguin, 2023)

To the uninitiated, a book on car parking sounds like the dullest, greyest topic in the entire world. Trust me: It isn’t. This is a serious page-turner, with forays into architecture, psychology, economics, city management and organised crime.

Taking its title from every urbanist’s favourite Joni Mitchell lyric, Paved Paradise proclaims to explain “how parking explains the world”. A bold promise? Yes. But it’s accurate. Author Henry Grabar is American and this book’s world is firmly centred on the USA. But that’s OK. Mass motorisation was largely an American export, and so were its accompanying public policies.

New Zealand’s post-war transport plans paid copious tribute to contemporary Californian cultural hegemony. While its grandest gestures are our urban motorways (East Los Angeles Interchange becomes Auckland’s Spaghetti Junction), other subtler factors do more. Auckland’s post-war urban form has, like America’s, overwhelmingly been shaped by rules around car parking. Don’t believe me? Visit a pre-1940 suburb in Auckland…and then compare it with Botany.

Grabar explains how mass car ownership in the USA led to intense competition for kerbside space. Parking meters (first introduced in 1936 in Oklahoma City) introduced the concept of “renting” a parking spot; however, from the 1950s, a developer-provided parking model became the norm. It became normal to link planning permission to on-site car parking provision. If your development generates car trips, then it should provide the parking. Reasonable, no?

Actually, no. Intellectually consistent with Professor Donald Shoup’s doorstop on this topic, Paved Paradise articulates how this ostensibly well-meaning approach de-legitimised proven, successful urban design.

The densest, most adaptable type of urban development is the mixed-use perimeter block, beloved of Chicago, Glasgow, Paris, Melbourne et al, but this is impossible to build with parking minimums. If every deli, dairy, bakery and apartment is compelled to provide on-site parking, your “urban” block will never work.

The ultimate outcome of car parking minimums is a small fast-food outlet sitting sadly in a sea of asphalt. It’s ugly, isolated and (crucially) legal to build. This is the architecture of sprawl.

Car parking requirements determine what you can build. (Credit: Alfred Twu / Paved Paradise)

Minimum parking standards lead to acres of space that are simply not worth caring about. It’s all down to the rules. No-one would build the rubbish on the bottom right if they didn’t have to, but parking rules preclude any other outcome.

Back in the 1990s, James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere decried American suburban sprawl as “the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”. True, maybe. But if it’s the only thing that’s legal to build, then it’s all you’re gonna get.

“…all the [parking] requirements were pseudoscience…copied from other cities, distorted by misleading evidence and implemented without examination.”

Grabar lays bare the bizarre parking minima that shape cities. Did you know that every table in a Detroit pool hall needs its own off-street parking space? The hundreds of arcane stipulations could fill a book…and they do; the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) Parking Generation Manual and Trip Generation Manual which only acknowledged walking for transport in 2020.   

Parking is very space hungry. To park one car requires 400 square feet (37 square metres). To provide parking, demolish one building for your development site; then knock down two more for the parking. Then repeat.

The outcome is “like moths devouring a lace wedding gown”. By 1972, 74 per cent of central Detroit was dedicated to roads and car parking. A similar story emerges from 1920s and 1970s Denver, or Houston.

Denver in 1920s and 1970s (Credit: Alfred Twu / Paved Paradise)

The tragedy of car parking minima is that they make well-functioning cities illegal. In virtually every US city, the most expensive neighbourhood is a prewar, mixed-use streetcar suburban that would be illegal to build today (p. 195). Much of Chicago BP (before parking) fits this pattern. By contrast, Chicago AP (after parking) is the much same as anywhere else in the USA. You can see the same pattern in New Zealand – just compare Dunedin and Tauranga. Minimum parking requirements push a city apart, smearing it out like margarine.

Grabar points out that this spatial relationship is not a new discovery. Back in 1952, Cleveland Transit Manager DC Hyde stated that “Destroying buildings and using valuable land for more and more parking lots and garages hastens decentralisation”. In other words, trams, trains and buses are the best way to bring a city together.

It’s interesting to note that some of America’s most dynamic, prosperous cities did realise this, introducing downtown parking maximums in the 1970s. Portland, Boston, San Francisco and New York all realised that cities should compete as cities, not with new suburbs. A growing network of transport professionals realises that parking reform is crucial to enable better cities.

We learn how parking requirements make homes more expensive and deter other would-be developers from even getting started. Each parking space in the USA costs $35,000 to build; $59,000 in New Zealand dollars. That’s $59,000 which, thanks to minimum parking, cannot be invested in anything else. Building 100 flats? One parking space per unit? You’re down almost six mill before you’ve laid a single brick.

A simple combination of development economics and parking rules killed the Los Angeles bungalow court and pretty much all mid-rise masonry buildings in LA. Loadsaparking became the norm, and deviations attracted opprobrium. Who remembers 2018’s “Radical, anti-car Auckland apartment block? Decades of parking minimums had inured planners, financiers and the public to any other outcome.

We saw this in Auckland in 2018, when the resource consent for the Grey Lynn Cohaus was recommended for refusal because of car parking minimums, despite providing six shared cars, a bike parking garage and proximity to frequent bus services. Car parking minimums recognise no such nuance. If the rules say you need 20 spaces then that’s what you “need”. Cohaus eventually did receive permission with a below-standard number of car parks, but only after a lot of effort to overturn the planners’ recommendation for refusal.

There’s an interesting foray into the underworld in “How to Use Parking for Money Laundering, Tax Evasion and Theft.” The scams and violence make this chapter read like the script for Goodfellas. No-one likes paying for off-street parking, but it certainly brings in the cash…and unsavoury characters. New York gangsters flocked to car parking; a barely audited cash business was the perfect way to launder millions, or simply steal money. A car parking attendant could under-report the numbers of cars per day, stuffing hundreds of dollars into a cigar box. A systematic parking scam at Philadelphia Airport in the 1990s may have netted its conspirators more than $7m per year. Not a bad return from clipping the ticket.

A consistent theme in the book is that it’s more efficient to control demand for car parking than it is to increase supply. Demand management also shapes travel behaviour. A $120 monthly parking fee for staff at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle reduced the drive-to-work mode share from 90 per cent in 2011 to 34 per cent in 2012.

Entitlement is a recurring theme. Over and over again, we learn about coveted parking spaces, the “right” to park and the sheer relentless determination of car-owners to preserve their parking space at any cost; more so if it is free to use.

Free kerbside parking induces irrational behaviour, including circulating endlessly for a free spot. Kerbside space is valuable, so price it appropriately. Want to reduce traffic in a city? Charge a higher price for on-street parking, limit the length of stay and enforce it rigorously.

Graber identifies kerbside management as crucial for well-functioning cities. Kerbs connect one street to many buildings and this space has many uses: drop-offs, delivery, and – yes, where appropriate – accommodating parking. Twenty-four-hour efficiencies occur when the same kerbside space can fulfil many different functions.

Chicago’s privatisation of its on-street parking meters is a spectacular example of how not to do it. The city relinquished billions of dollars in parking meter revenue to a slick consortium, losing control of its kerbsides in the process. Changes like cycle lanes, parklets, loading zones or wider footways are now much more difficult and/or carry heavy penalty fees, payable to the private parking meter consortium. It’s now much harder for Chicago to manage public streets for public benefit.

Paved Paradise emphasises the need to manage car parking, not as a supply problem, nor a solving-congestion problem, but as a component of the overall vision for the city.

Parking stands for a primitive kind of access that both overshadows and impedes a more profound and widely held right to the city. (Paved Paradise, p. 284).

While USA-focussed, the lessons of Paved Paradise are transferrable to anywhere seeking to rebalance its transport system, such as New Zealand. We had parking minimums here for decades until they were abolished decisively by the NPS-UD, with the last few leaving the statute books in 2022 to widespread acclaim. No longer must a developer subsidise car use as part of their business case.

The ongoing spat around removing on-street parking from Wellington’s Golden Mile is a case in point. People flock to city centres because they concentrate many attractions and destinations in close proximity to one another. It’s geometrically impossible to deliver this rich density if it’s predicated on most people expecting to be able to drive in and park at zero cost.

Looking to the future, Paved Paradise examines the possibilities of self-driving cars which will never need parking, at least not as is currently understood. While worthy of examination, moving vehicles still require disproportionate amounts of space; they may be part of the answer, but are not the answer themselves.

Car parking is a highly emotive topic, and it has huge spatial consequences. If we are to have sensible conversations about the future of our cities, we need to understand the role of transport systems and policies. Paved Paradise tackles much of the received wisdom and anecdata that led to multiple mistakes in parking policies, and the subsequent efforts to correct these errors. Maybe Grabar could be tempted to examine the effects of removing New Zealand’s car parking minimums in a follow-up book?

Paved Paradise combines rigorous academic and professional sources into a compelling, readable narrative. While many people’s instincts might be to flinch from a hefty-looking hardback, the fact remains that Paved Paradise could – and should – appeal equally to professional and general audience. Simultaneously enlightening, engaging and thought-provoking, it’s a treat for practitioners, politicians and the public.

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  1. Sounds great. Thanks, George.

    Does the author delve into the damage to the pedestrian and cycling environment caused by all the vehicle crossings?

    The AUP has guidelines to try to reduce the size and number of vehicle crossings, but my research revealed Council has turned a blind eye to these at every opportunity, exacerbating the problem during a time we should have been steadily chipping away at it.

    I hit brick walls when trying to analyse it systematically. Council didn’t want me exposing their regressive systemic decision making. I guess I’ll turn back to the subject sometime.

    1. Hello Heidi, from memory it doesn’t mention this specifically…but there’s a lot in ‘Paved Paradise’. I’d re-read it and check but I’ve returned the book to Auckland Libraries and there’s a looooong waiting list to borrow it again (11 holds). Who knew a book on parking could be so popular?

        1. Just after me, I suspect 🙂 It’s heartening to see what a popular book it has turned out to be.

    2. Trouble is, the Rules on spacing of vehicle crossings are not absolute, they depend on the size of the site being developed. Subdivision into tiny lots allows lots of crossings – it takes a lot of push-back to get rear access lanes, which take up otherwise-buildable land. Of course, rear access lanes free up lots of kerbside for on-street parking, if and when it is still needed.
      Redevelopment of single-house lots never reduces the number of crossings and quite often increases them, so street space goes down again.
      If the Rules were that you couldn’t build unless you reduced the number/ increased the spacing of vehicle crossings, that would prevent the usual problem, but building could only happen by accumulating two or more lots – ideal, but difficult.

      1. “it takes a lot of push-back to get rear access lanes, which take up otherwise-buildable land.”

        I do a lot of work for residential subdivision clients in greenfields in Auckland, and rear access lanes are quite common and accepted now.

        What drives my clients mad is if Council then turns around and starts acting like the rear access lanes (which are basically just rows of garages along a driveway lane) suddenly need to be treated like public spaces / made better for pedestrians…

      2. Multiple homes can, of course, share a single existing vehicle crossing if designed with this requirement in mind. Even one that might be narrower than the existing crossing.

        Council advised me:

        “For infill development proposals, the Auckland Unitary Plan enables developers to be able to apply for a second vehicle crossing via a resource consent if they consider the existing vehicle crossing and access way is not suitable. The onus lies with the applicant to demonstrate their need for a second crossing.”

        I can give examples of cases where the developer could have designed the (double) site to reduce from two vehicle crossings to one, but instead was consented for four vehicle crossings, two of them double. Leaving almost no contiguous footpath.

        When I asked some specific questions about some of the more recent Hobsonville Point developments, they ghosted me.

        Given Council could and should be encouraging car parking to be at a distance from housing anyway, so developments could easily have no vehicle crossings and be served by one parking site nearby, this is shoddy and last century nonsense.

        They also said:

        “Street and pedestrian amenity and safety is an important consideration that processing planners have to be mindful of when assessing proposals for additional vehicle crossings. Applicants need to demonstrate to council’s satisfaction that the additional vehicle crossing will not impinge on the enjoyment and use of the road berm by pedestrians. ”

        But when pressed for such demonstration, there was nothing but bullshit. It seems as long as the developer has a consultant’s report, council turns a blind eye to clear degradation of the pedestrian environment.

  2. This is an example of an inherent issue with the way we approach planning.

    There is no requirement to undertake a full and detailed cost benefit analysis on each and every rule that goes into statutory planning documents. We also end up with different rules in each plan.

    Requiring parking supply to be provided through planning rules, which often ends up unpriced, provides the ability to travel by car, and thus adds to the congestion, air pollution, increased road crashes and demand for road widening (all disbenefits) compared to a do minimum scenario where the parking is fully priced or not provided at all

    1. I think part of the issue is that rules are supposed to manage adverse effects, but there is an assumption that any effect is adverse. The effect of more demand for on street car parking isn’t adverse, the effect of more people living near you isn’t adverse, the effect of a small retailer in a suburban area isn’t adverse. Yet we have ended up with planning rules to manage all of these effects.

      Councils should be required to prove that the effects that they manage are adverse to human health or the natural environment, not just that they exist.

      1. True. The question shouldn’t be: “How to we minimise negative externalities?” but: “What do you want the built environment to be?”

  3. Market forces will eventually shape parking in suburbia. The roadside is a dire place to leave a motor vehicle,at best the mirror gets torn off by passing traffic,at worst ,stolen. Anyone renewing their vehicle insurance knows the cost is rapidly rising. Couple this with electric vehicle charging,will we end up with cords across the footpath, means onroad suburbia parking,while” free “is not cheap.
    The Hop card fits neatly into a designated slot in a wallet/purse, very space efficient,a bike is easily stored on even the smallest of land plots.
    Solving the CBD /shopping/entertainment parking will require some courageous leadership, old habits die hard,the repurposing of the Downtown Carpark has provoked some IMO bizarre responses,as though a basic human right is being removed.

    1. A CityHop card is a nice add-on, just in case you really need to drive.

      Vans are available at big box locations, but sadly nothing available with a tow bar.

      I found that odd given how many retailers are now offering cheap or even free trailer loans.

      It would nail the old canard about trying to get your sofa, fridge and tuba collection home on your bike…

      1. Whenever I read that, I wonder if there is a business that can take big things from a store to you. Maybe I should start one!

        1. Great idea. I somehow suspect that a similar service for transporting goods is available in most of New Zealand, too.

    2. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not, contrary to popular belief, contain an article covering the human right to car parking!

      Public transport is often described as “bringing benefits to commuters”, but only ~20% of journeys in Auckland are commutes. What about the other 80%? What else can we do to maximise city centre accessibility for shopping, entertainment, etc. at evenings and weekends?

    3. “Market forces” are what will a bank lend to a developer, and then to a buyer? No choosing something good and pleasant to live in, unless it brings more return on capital to the bank.

  4. Auckland Council had perfectly adequate assessment criteria. Had they been applied correctly Cohaus would have had their application granted. Eventually it was granted under those very criteria. The problem is that people working at the Council seem intent on ‘protecting’ the Council from its own regulatory documents. They are doing the same thing with the Unitary Plan. Some staff training in the planning department would be useful.

    1. “Some staff training in the planning department would be useful.”

      Those staff get a lot of real life training whenever Council and Local Board staff lambast them for not properly protecting the status quo!

      What the rules say is one thing (and often bad enough) – what decisionmakers WANT the rules to really do is sometimes worse.

  5. Another reason to be wary of fully- autonomous vehicles. Imagine them after dropping off their owner/occupier then circulating for as long as it takes to find free car parking in a nearby residential suburb thus cluttering both the roads with extra traffic and residential neighbourhoods with unoccupied cars parked on in-metered kerbsides waiting to be summoned back into the city by their owner. I remember 20-odd years ago as a member of the Western Bays Community Board that we spent many months and heaps of money on consultants investigating parking problems in and around Ponsonby Road only to discover that parts of the main drag had a ready supply of completely time-unlimited and unmetered parking spaces. Putting a time limit on all these spaces immediately got rid of the very long-stay “park and hide” brigade who had been able to commute in from outer suburbs, park in Ponsonby Road for hours and use the link bus to access the CBD in some cases for 8 hours or longer. This quickly freed up plenty of space for those who actually needed to access and local businesses or cafes then depart and make room for others – parking limits were carefully tailored to ensure a good turn-over with a mix of short-stay parking (P5 – very close to convenience stores where your shopping transaction might only take a minute or so) and longer-stay parking (P30, P60 etc – at a greater distance – a minute or so walk away was entirely proportionate if your stay was likely to take many minutes).

    1. An incremental improvement, but a lost opportunity for real accessibility. What was needed was rewritable provision for the full range of people needing access to the area, including those too young, too old or too sensible to drive. Removing the parking and creating a protected “third lane” is what was required. Ponsonby has plenty of off-street parking.

      1. Ponsonby could certainly benefit from easier access by non-car modes and car parking would need to be managed in such a way as to deliver this outcome.

    2. Thanks Graeme, this is a really good example of managing parking in terms of desired outcomes. I’m sure plenty of people would have said at the time of the study: “There’s not enough parking in Ponsonby” when the real answer was: “On-street parking in Ponsonby is not being managed correctly.”

  6. Best wishes for this, George. Unfortunately, calling out on the street corner we arte only heard by the people walking or biking by, not the Entitled people crawling by in cars. Ah, well.

    1. Thanks Grant. Hopefully the fact that the market is now free to choose how much parking to provide (or not) will broaden the range of developments on offer.

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