Guest Post: Samuel Scheib on Parking, the Field of Nightmares

Samuel Scheib is the senior planner at StarMetro (Tallahassee, Florida) and the editor of Trip Planner Magazine: the art and science
of transit
.  He holds a master’s degree in planning from Florida State University, as a Transit Fellow. 

Parking was one of the earliest problems associated with the widespread automobile ownership that began in the 1910s and 1920s; having a place to leave cars—the terminal capacity—is as important to the transportation system as the carriageway that moves them.  By the 1930s, urban streets were filled with cars that were driving in circles searching for curb parking.  The accepted solution to this congestion problem was off-street parking.
Soon, cities around the United States had enshrined off-street parking requirements in their zoning laws.  According to Donald Shoup (The High
Cost of Free Parking
) a 1946 survey found that only 17% of the cities in the study had zoned parking requirements; just five years later that percentage was 76.  Today free, unlimited parking is the expectation for most drivers:  parking is free for 99% of all automobile trips in the U.S.

The type and design of unlimited, off-street parking can only be described as the greatest missed opportunity in the history of transportation
planning.  Without documentary evidence I can only imagine that the first shopping centers and other structures that boasted off-street parking were doing exactly that: having the parking in front was the best way to show it off.  It is arguably easier to park in front of a building than behind it, but only by the tiniest degree of difficulty; driving an extra hundred yards is far easier than walking that distance.  If transportation planners had been able to peer ever-so-slightly around the corner of history they might have realized the potential of what off-street parking would later reap.  If the zoning had specifically required off-street parking and maximum building setbacks (that is to force the buildings to be located within 20 or 30 feet of the carriageway) our nation would look completely different today.

Would people still want to buy and drive cars?  Yes, but if the buildings were near the street (as they were in Çatal Höyük, ancient Athens, Rome, Constantinople, the great cities of Europe, and American cities east, west, and central built before 1930) other modes of transportation would have remained viable — and most importantly conventional – compared to the automobile.

Mahan Corridor 007 Conformity is never so welcome as in the transportation sector, and misery never more alone.  Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to walk along a big-box, sidewalk-free U.S. highway knows that as depressingly ugly as this public space is, the worst part of the experience is the exposure, the feeling of
being the lone freakish pedestrian on Planet Auto.  Even those of us who are strong transit advocates may recognize–when we are completely honest with ourselves–that when we are in our cars and see people walking in these hostile environments we have the knee-jerk thought that there must be something wrong with that person:  Poor?  Homeless?  Mentally ill?  Mode choice can be the source of scorn or pity.

Were those parking lots behind the structures, several things would have happened.  First, we would have preserved blocks and polygons.  They may have been larger than the ones that preceded them in the 19th century, but the corner lot would have retained value and each side of the block, rather than just the front, would have had importance.  Second, parking would be shared.
Goat trails Today it is not uncommon to see fences between the side-by-side parking lots of big box stores.  (The fence in this image protects the shopping of a Border’s Books from the adjacent Office Depot.)  Not many people walk between them anyway, and certainly not between two or three stores, a distance
of a half mile or more in the ugly and hostile environment, but the store providing ample parking does not want to share with the guy next door who has fewer spaces.  That cooperation would have happened in the block system; a shared parking lot would have made access to four buildings (or more) easy and convenient and those property owners would have bought and sold spaces as a percentage of the floor space, or by some other formula.  However accomplished, business owners would have recognized the value of that shared commodity just as the contemporary merchant knows the importance of an attractive, shared atrium/corridor inside the shopping mall.

Third, and most important, the urban streetscape would have been preserved.  Not only is transit–and by extension walking–most effective in this environment, but the proximity of the buildings to the street would have forever prevented the 8-laning of America.  The costs of widening would
have been exorbitant because municipalities would not have been buying just land (land that may have constituted drainage ditch anyway), but they would also have had to buy and destroy the buildings atop the property.

Urban infill 003 (In this Tallahassee image, the small building in front is from the 1920s, while the new building behind it reflects new planning policies that encourage buildings adjacent to the street.)

City leaders and public works officials in cities as large as Atlanta (16 lanes of interstate in some places) and Los Angeles down to modest municipalities like Tallahassee have come to understand that they can’t build enough roads at low enough costs to solve our transportation problems.  Had the buildings not been so far apart, transportation planners and officials would have arrived at this conclusion far sooner, perhaps before the 1956 Interstate Highway Act.  Yes, engineers have widened urban streets often to within a few feet of the buildings, but they were widening the tip of the funnel, and had the pressure not come from far wider streets in the sprawl it is unlikely that road widening would have been the de facto solution to congestion.

Ninety percent of planning involves fixing the planning decisions of the previous generation.  Let the Big Dig (burying the old elevated central artery in
Boston) and urban renewal stand as exhibits one and two.  Perhaps the people who instituted those first off-street ordinances were guilty of looking only 20 years ahead.  They would have seen the problem those buildings near the road would have represented for future expansion.  But like the legendary frog who jumps out of hot water but boils in slowly heating water, earlier generations did not foresee 8-, 10-, 12-lane parking lots through the hearts of downtowns or those warnings on variable message displays to stay indoors because of poor air quality.  The off-street parking lot facing the street represented the acquiescence, the complete capitulation to, the needs of the automobile.  The greatest failure was the simplest thing, applicable to all areas of life:  Young planners, look ye farther ahead and always choose balance.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and the all-for-the-car attitude has yielded an appropriate field of horrors.

11 Responses to Guest Post: Samuel Scheib on Parking, the Field of Nightmares

  1. anonymouse April 24, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    “Parking in rear” is a pattern that I see in California, specifically in suburban downtown business districts such as Mountain View or Lake Avenue in Pasadena. It works pretty well: businesses have access from both front (main street) and back (parking lot), and the parking lots have entrances either on cross streets or streets parallel to the main one, so that the line of storefronts is not interrupted, and it allows for the main street to be traffic-calmed. I think it’s a fairly effective pattern in that it allows for an island of walkability, though it creates some problems in the back where the parking lots are, which limits the growth of that island.

  2. EngineerScotty April 24, 2010 at 12:13 pm #

    One minor logistical issue with parking in rear (which is not to say it isn’t a good idea for businesses who depend on the patronage of motorists) is the issue of freight delivery. Businesses which have parking lots in front have loading docks in the back; when there are customer entrances on both sides, the issue of freight gets a bit trickier–but not unmanageable.

  3. Ted King April 24, 2010 at 2:52 pm #

    The need for access to parking in the rear means a new use for alleys. And loading docks do not need to have a long, straight approach. An alternate configuration could be a sort of side pocket with enough room for the tractor unit to back out of the way (think inverted “L”).

  4. Paul C April 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

    In most cities in the older parts of those cites that were developed before WWII. You tend to notice a trend of store fronts being very close to the main road with an alley in the back. Buildings are close together so you don’t get the wide open space between stores.
    It was post WWII when suburbia started to gain ground and with the automobile become more prevalent. That we started to see the huge wide open parking lots in front of the stores. This was probably the biggest mistake ever made. What if instead of those huge parking lots they had put the buildings up against the road and had underground parking lots instead. They could have had more buildings/acre. But the failed miserably in that regard. The cheap wide open land outside of the central core of most cities allowed them build those wide open parking lots.

  5. Peter Parker April 24, 2010 at 9:00 pm #

    @EngineerScotty: another consideration is that retailers may not always want two customer entrances – passive security is improved if all customers must walk past a single entrance, next to the main counter. It is possible to configure buildings to have an internal corridor, but it wastes floorspace.
    So you’d have buildings being built without front doors, with pedestrians accessing the shop competing with exiting/entering cars.
    Having said that, I agree with the post. It would have made a huge difference to being able to serve industrial areas with transit – something that tends to be neglected even though they are major employment areas.

  6. Ericorozco April 24, 2010 at 10:15 pm #

    Hey Peter that would not have been a problem, especially in an environment where sharing parking use was the law. Stores would have understood the value of having cashiers at both entrances if the visiting the street was a draw.
    Next time you see a Dicks sporting goods store built outside an old but still active mall, check it out. There is typically a mall side entrance and a parking lot entrance, and folks that park in front pass through the store. That gives the store plenty of chances to show off its merchandise to folks that are just passing through.
    At least one of the virtues of our aging indoor malls we should keep and try to transfer while it is not too late: Mall parking is shared parking. We should build the same expectations into our mixed use districts! But I notice the fencing and towing and name-stamping on the parking spaces behind our new mixed use developments. And it is catching like wildfire. It is sad, sad, sad.

  7. Cap'n Transit April 25, 2010 at 11:11 am #

    I agree with Peter Parker. In Port Chester the old Life Savers factory was redeveloped into condos, but all the street entrances were closed, leaving only the entrance in the back and sapping the street life on the entire block.
    Yes, it’s marginally better to have a pedestrian-friendly streetwall, but in the Northeast we’ve got tons of these hollowed-out old towns and it’s not that much better. If nobody else is walking on the sidewalks they’ll just get neglected and parked on anyway.
    This is like saying “Make sure that your shit sandwiches are made with the freshest ingredients!” without really acknowledging that you’re still eating shit.

  8. Peter Parker April 26, 2010 at 2:50 am #

    Thanks ES & CT.
    This shows access to a similar ‘big box’ development in Australia. But unlike the example given above there is no zebra crossing or direct path to the door.
    Requiring direct pedestrian access from the street through legible paths and zebra crossings all the way would be a big step forward and would just need a bit of paint and minor works in the car park.

  9. Tom West April 26, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    The problem here is how to deal with those shops that are already set back from the street.
    On the main commercial street where I live is a number of small mini-strip malls, with half a dozen or so small buisnesses, with a car park between the shopfront and the road. There is no financially sensisble way to “move” them closer to the road.
    The best solution I can see would be to *extend* the buildings towards the road along the edge of the carpark to make a U shape (or L shape). That way, there would be a way to the setback shops that doesn’t take you over an acre of car park.
    In general, I don’t think cities and towns should prescribe the amoutn of parking required, but let buisnesses choose the amount. They will be aware that customers who can’t park can’t spend money, so they will work to match parking supply to demand.

  10. Mathieuhelie April 26, 2010 at 11:02 am #

    It seems that if the building is too far from the street, the solution is to move the street to the building, as I outlined in my article:
    This requires a “non-linear” model of what a street can be.

  11. Jman April 28, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    Very interesting idea. It makes sense too to have the buildings by the street. It does take a lot of effort to walk from the bus stop to the grocery store, or where ever you’re going.
    Plus the giant parking lots in the front just looks nasty. I mean, you drive down a busy road, then there’s a bunch of big box stores with giant parking lots in between you and them. A nice, solid storefront with some trees on the sidewalk or something would look better. I guess the idea with shopping centers though was that after you park and walk up to one store, then you’d walk around and look at other stores, but that hardly ever happens.
    The only problem I see, and it’s one you mentioned, was that if the road needs to be widened, or some kind of construction needs to be done under the road, it’s pretty much impossible to do without destroying the building.