Parking datapoints of the day

By Felix Salmon
November 17, 2011
Emily Badger has found a fantastic paper (not online, sadly) from the University of Connecticut.

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Emily Badger has found a fantastic paper (not online, sadly) from the University of Connecticut. Authors Chris McCahill and Norman Garrick took aerial photographs of New Haven, Hartford, and Cambridge, and started counting up the number of off-street parking spaces over time.

There’s a general tendency, in American cities, for the number of parking spots to rise inexorably — and that’s exactly what happened in New Haven and Hartford. As McCahill and Garrick write:

If places were to grow, it was assumed that most of the growth would be served by automobile, so new development would require supplemental parking facilities. In the city of Hartford, Connecticut, city officials stated in 1972 that, “the most critical improvement to [neighborhood shopping districts] which could be made at this time is the provision of off-street parking facilities”. In 1982, responding to the claim that his city had more parking than any other Connecticut city, New Haven Mayor Biagio DiLieto stated that he was “strongly committed to maintaining and improving parking facilities for workers, shoppers, and visitors in the downtown area”.

The authors add, waspishly:

Applying this thinking to U.S. cities, without knowing any other information, one would expect that the cities with the greatest increases in parking over the past fifty years have also experienced the greatest growth of development and activities. And conversely, the cities in which parking has not increased substantially might be struggling to achieve growth.

Of course, that’s not what happened at all. New Haven had 21,690 parking spots in 1951, and 106,410 in 2009; Hartford went from 47,000 to 141,000 in the same time period. But both were shrinking, rather than growing, in population.

Meanwhile, Cambridge took a different tack, and decided in 1985 to essentially ban the creation of any new parking spots. That decision marked the beginning of a reversal in its population trend: it started growing quite impressively. Here’s the chart:


Parking lots are — with only a handful of exceptions — the best possible way of destroying a city’s soul. They’re gruesome, lifeless places, and I’m constantly astonished by the way in which governments and developers are convinced that they’re a great idea. Instead, local government should act as a brake on private developers’ desires to build out new parking: while that might (or might not) be good for an individual commercial operation, it can at the same time be bad for the city as a whole. Cambridge is living proof that this can be done: other cities, including New Haven and Hartford, should follow its lead.


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I agree with your general point, but the chart shows Hartford & New Haven growing throughout the time period, not shrinking. Slower growth≠shrinkage.

Posted by Setty | Report as abusive

In this particular example, the uptick in Cambridge tracks more closely with the removal of rent control rather than the parking issue. At minimum, that would seem to be the more impactful change in that locale.

Posted by milesk | Report as abusive

In addition, you need a meaningful public transit system.

Posted by weiwentg | Report as abusive

Your larger point about parking lots may be valid, but Hartford and New Haven really aren’t great analogues for Cambridge, however.

Mass transit options in Connecticut are very limited, as compared to Boston. Cambridge is also much closer to a large population center than either of the two Connecticut cities. I also suspect there are economic and demographic issues contributing to the growth (or lack thereof) of these cities.

Posted by ctcommuter | Report as abusive

Growth occurs predictably with easiest access.

Build mass transit, growth occurs along the route outward from stops. Build freeways, and growth occurs along the route outward from on/offramps.

Parking lots are necessary, but to be attractive as a “piece of the puzzle of economic strength and growth” they must be easily accessible and inexpensive.

Access is the key to growth, presuming demand and reasonable cost. California has shown you CAN build freeways into the desert and, given sufficient water, the desert will bloom along it.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

1. Cambridge was put under a court order that limited parking. That’s why the number plateaus. Clean air act. The result has been good for the city and the city has embraced it.

2. Correlation is not causation. Urban decline caused parking lots; empty buildings were torn down and nothing replaced them. Downtown New Haven lost most of its retail, including large department stores. Downtown Hartford is worse. One can argue the parking lots make things worse but it’s tough to draw a causal line because there was no interest in investing in these places at a scale which would have reduced the number of empty lots. While New Haven has come back somewhat, there was a tremendous amount of loss.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive

Nice of you to highlight this, but “of the day” in your headline rather suggests this is a new paper.

Published back in January I believe: 536331u12/

Posted by neil21 | Report as abusive

I once read that San Diego has something like 70% of its area paved with asphalt or concrete, the vast majority of which is dedicated to the automobile.

I believe the existence of freeways and parking and lack of ATTRACTIVE public transit is quite intentional. Regional planning commissions are usually packed with pro-development hacks that view land as a resource to be consumed, not conserved.

The are more quick bucks to be made by facilitating suburban and exurban development on raw land that trying to do the same in the inner cities.

Latent or soft-core racism is also big factor here, especially for the Cambridge versus Connecticut example.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Coming so soon after your post on the limits of statistics, Felix, I’d have expected a more nuanced treatment.

What happened to the *daytime* population of New Haven over the past 30 years? (What would have happened to it without the expansion of parking space?) What happened to total population, employment and income of the entire area within commuting radius of the New Haven-Hamden-West Haven urban agglomeration? What should have been done with vacant lots downtown, and who should have done it?

Posted by rkillings | Report as abusive

Parking lots (as opposed to parking garages) are a sympton of a declining city, not a causation. As a building becomes physically and or economically obsolesent, and is demolished, there is either an economic demand to build a new building in its place, or the owner of the property “land banks” the site until there is an economic demand to build a replacement building. usually the cheapest way to “land bank” the site is to pave it over cheaply and operate a parking lot.

Posted by Developerguy | Report as abusive

Echoing jomiku, correlation does not equal causation. New Haven and Hartford both notably launched large urban redevelopment programs beginning in the 1950s–New Haven even became (briefly) the national poster child for urban redevelopment. Having not read the paper, I don’t know if the authors controlled for this, or other alternatives, but presented here, the relationship seems spurious–it makes much more theoretical sense that the larger redevelopment programs produced parking lots AND drove down population in both cities rather than that the presence of parking lots alone could drive down the population’s of both cities by 25%. Before we start lobbying local governments to destroy all their parking lots, let’s have realistic expectations as to what degree of positive change this will bring.

Posted by CampTen | Report as abusive

Parking structures don’t have have to be soul destroying urban scars. For example, Beverly Hills, Ca has done something positive with it’s parking garages. The first floor of the garage is dedicated to retail, with only an entrance and exit drive at street level. The pay booth is recessed deep into the building so pedestrians don’t see it as they walk buy. The facade of the upper floors, where the cars are parked, look like an apartment building with glass windows, faux balconies and flower boxes. The archectural style is usually Mediterranean to fit the whole B.H. vibe. These structures actually add to the beauty of the street. In neighboring West Hollywood, especially on the Sunset Strip, the same concept is used, with first floor retail, only the style is more contemporary and highly graphic billboards adorn the upper floors, which blend in perfectly with the rest of the Strip. Both towns are growing with highly vibrant retail districts. The point is that with a little fore thought, highly functional parking garages can be well integrated into the urban landscape without detracting from it.

Posted by mgjovik | Report as abusive

Echoing what others have said (or, piling on, as the case may be), the correlations to each city are tenuous, notwithstanding the Yale and Harvard rivalries. Since contractions occurring in cities are more likely to be in a random and entropic fashion, there is little to control the effect of more sprouting parking lots. Perhaps a tax credit to keep it as a greenfield rather than paving? Short of a monetary incentive, more empty lots will become parking as the cities charge more for on-street parking and increase violation fees.

Posted by boston_bob | Report as abusive

I believe we have another correlation-causation problem here. Parking, especially the kind that can be counted from the air, is what you do with land when you have nothing else to do with land. It’s basically the equivalent of letting agricultural land lay fallow to stop erosion. A parking lot is nominally better than an empty lot as it won’t become trash or weed strewn and someone might occasionally pay you to park there. However if the land had any greater demand, the lot would quickly be converted to meet that demand.

So the problem isn’t that cities build parking and lose people, but that cities on the decline simply try to patch the empty undeveloped lots with parking because it is cheap and still better than nothing.

Posted by NewJerseyMike | Report as abusive

These are thoughtful comments. So, as a co-author of this study, I feel compelled to respond. This has been a slow, laborious study and it’s still ongoing. Some earlier findings have been published based on case studies of just two cities. We are now looking at more than two dozen.
One point I’d like to make clear is that we fully acknowledge the complexity of this issue and we are not suggesting direct causation (as graphs often imply). Instead, we are bringing into question the emphasis that has been placed on parking provision when it comes to urban growth and development.
We suspect that what’s happening in some of these cities is that the fragmenting of the cities by urban renewal and parking have made them less attractive places. It has also made walking, biking, and providing transit more difficult.
In both Hartford and New Haven, much of the parking was the result of failed urban renewal. But since then, both cities have invested heavily in large parking garages in the downtowns. So we are not simply seeing the use of vacant land for parking. Statements by policymakers in both cities verify this.
Although Cambridge is already well-positioned to have a unique transportation system, the policies that the city have instituted go above and beyond (even compared to other cities in the Boston metro). We continue to focus on Cambridge because it offers valuable lessons for any city.
Felix’s summary is fantastic, but it also provides a very narrow view of the work. If anybody is interested in the full studies, I encourage you to contact me directly at

Posted by ctmccahill | Report as abusive

This is not rocket science – the City has step by step been removing the ugly scars of redevelopment and failures of the past – unlike academics who sit in their office and “discover” some correlation, the practioners on the ground must find ways to actually make things happen…so 360 State Street a 190 million dollar union pension fund investment in the middle of a recession is wildly successful – taking out a “40 year surface parking lot” and replacing it with a leeds platnium TOD development complete with a incredible food coop. The “Coliseum site” is next with Montreal based LiveWorkLearnPlay working on a mixed use development for the 4.5 acre site and several other “surface lots” in play. You do have to facilitate the “market” so these developments happen and given the overall economy New Haven is exploiting every opportunity possible.

Posted by bialecki | Report as abusive

I don’t know if any one else is seeing my perspective:

If you limit parking in a city, you increase the disincentive to commuting and as a consequence of the cost-benefit analysis that humans use to decide where to live; more people will be inclined to choose to live closer to work (because there’s no cheap parking close to work).

When it takes you more than 15 minutes to find an empty parking spot and that spot is more than a 15 minute walk away from work in weather-exposed environments and once you start realizing you’ve rarely ever found a good parking spot close to work; and that oh look there’s a new condo development being sold and its a 15-minute walk from work; guess what your next move will be.

Posted by MarThorne | Report as abusive

MarThorne – or maybe a company moves to a suburban office park because its employees can’t park at work, or maybe a person shops at a suburban retailer with on-site parking.

I find the comparison of Hartford and New Haven to Cambridge to be an odd one. Both Hartford and New Haven are the central cities of their respective metro areas, a noted contrast with Cambridge. All 3 municipalities are below their peak populations, by the way, and each hit a peak in 1950. I’d also wonder about the focus on Hartford and New Haven proper, which are small cities in both area (18 to 20 square miles) and population (125k to 130k) in the midst of much larger MSA’s (populations of 1.2 million and 570k, respectively). Goes back to the point that rkillings made about daytime population.

Posted by realist50 | Report as abusive

I live in Baltimore. Significant parts of the downtown have been turned into high-rise parking garages by developers. Where once there were drug stores, local restaurants, dry cleaners, candy shops, etc., there are now brick facades housing cars. The friendliness of the streets has warped into a sense of threat. One can drive down Lombard St and feel they are in a brick corridor. Where people used to shop, walk and converse, there are just cars and brick walls of garages. One of the things that parking lots and garages do to a poorly planned or developer, profit-oriented city is visually destroy it. The quality of visual life, alone, matters. The garages of Baltimore are a clear example of how something needed for city development, rather than promoting it, results in alienation for visitors and citizens alike.

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