Parking datapoints of the day

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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