EVEN if the new headquarters that Apple is creating in California does not prove to be “the best office building in the world”, as Steve Jobs boasted shortly before his death in 2011, it will be an astounding sight. The main building resembles a flying saucer with a hole in the middle. Through its large, gently curving windows, workers will eventually look out on a wood containing some 7,000 carefully chosen trees. It is as though a race of high-tech beings has landed on a pristine planet.
And then, unfortunately, there’s the car park. For 14,000 workers, Apple is building almost 11,000 parking spaces. Many cars will be tucked under the main building, but most will cram into two enormous garages to the south. Tot up all the parking spaces and the lanes and ramps that will allow cars to reach them, and it is clear that Apple is allocating a vast area to stationary vehicles. In all, the new headquarters will contain 318,000 square metres of offices and laboratories. The car parks will occupy 325,000 square metres.
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Apple is building 11,000 parking spaces not because it wants to but because Cupertino, the suburban city where the new headquarters is located, demands it. Cupertino has a requirement for every building. A developer who wants to put up a block of flats, for example, must provide two parking spaces per apartment, one of which must be covered. For a fast-food restaurant, the city demands one space for every three seats; for a bowling alley, seven spaces per lane plus one for every worker. Cupertino’s neighbours have similar rules. With such a surfeit of parking, most of it free, it is little wonder that most people get around Silicon Valley by car, or that the area has such appalling traffic jams.
Parking can seem like the most humdrum concern in the world. Even planners, who thrill to things like zoning and floor-area ratios, find it unglamorous. But parking influences the way cities look, and how people travel around them, more powerfully than almost anything else. Many cities try to make themselves more appealing by building cycle paths and tram lines or by erecting swaggering buildings by famous architects. If they do not also change their parking policies, such efforts amount to little more than window-dressing. There is a one-word answer to why the streets of Los Angeles look so different from those of London, and why neither city resembles Tokyo: parking.
For as long as there have been cars, there has been a need to store them when they are not moving—which, these days, is about 95% of the time. Washington, DC, had a parking garage in 1907, before Ford produced its first Model T. But the most important innovation came in 1923, when Columbus, in Ohio, began to insist that builders of flats create parking spaces for the people who would live in them. “Parking minimums”, as these are known, gradually spread across America. Now, as the number of cars on the world’s roads continues to grow (see chart), they are spreading around the world.
The codes that tell developers how much parking they must provide can be wonderfully revealing of local mores. In Las Vegas, “sex novelty shops” must have at least three spaces per 1,000 square feet (93 square metres) of floor space but “adult entertainment cabarets” at least ten for the same area. Singapore insists on one space for every 500 niches in a columbarium—a place where funerary urns are stored. Chennai’s city plan calls for one parking space for every 20 square metres of marriage hall. Perhaps unwisely, the city of Swan, in Australia, has parking minimums for taverns and wineries.
Might as well do the white line
Some developers are happy to supply parking spaces. Ryan Shear of Property Markets Group builds expensive flats in Miami, which are often bought by Latin Americans. He sometimes creates more spaces than the city requires, because his customers desire a safe place for their precious motors. But most developers create the number of parking spaces they are compelled to build and no more. In 2004 London abolished minimum parking requirements. Research by Zhan Guo of New York University shows that the amount of parking in new residential blocks promptly plunged, from an average of 1.1 spaces per flat to 0.6 spaces. The parking minimum had boosted supply far beyond what the market demanded.
Water companies are not obliged to supply all the water that people would use if it were free, nor are power companies expected to provide all the free electricity that customers might want. But many cities try to provide enough spaces to meet the demand for free parking, even at peak times. Some base their parking minimums on the “Parking Generation Handbook”, a tome produced by the Institute of Transportation Engineers. This reports how many cars are found in the free car parks of synagogues, waterslide parks and so on when they are busiest.
The harm caused begins with the obvious fact that parking takes up a lot of room. A typical space is 12-15 square metres; add the necessary access lanes and the space per car roughly doubles. For comparison, this summer The Economist will move into a building in central London where it is assumed each employee will have ten square metres of space. In cities, such as Kansas City (see map), where land is cheap, and surface parking the norm, central areas resemble asphalt oceans dotted with buildings.
Kerb your enthusiasm
The more spread out and car-oriented a city, as a result of enormous car parks, the less appealing walking and cycling become. Besides, if you know you can park free wherever you go, why not drive? The ever-growing supply of free parking in America is one reason why investments in public transport have coaxed so few people out of cars, says David King of Arizona State University. In 1990, 73% of Americans got to work by driving alone, according to the census. In 2014, after a ballyhooed urban revival and many expensive tram and rapid-bus projects, 76% drove.
The rule of thumb in America is that multi-storey car parks cost about $25,000 per space and underground parking costs $35,000. Donald Shoup, an authority on parking economics, estimates that creating the minimum number of spaces adds 67% to the cost of a new shopping centre in Los Angeles if the car park is above ground and 93% if it is underground. Parking requirements can also make redevelopment impossible. Converting an old office building into flats generally means providing the parking spaces required for a new block of flats, which is likely to be difficult. The biggest cost of parking minimums may be the economic activity they prevent.
Free parking is not, of course, really free. The costs of building the car parks, as well as cleaning, lighting, repairing and securing them, are passed on to the people who use the buildings to which they are attached. Restaurant meals and cinema tickets are more pricey; flats are more expensive; office workers are presumably paid less. Everybody pays, whether or not they drive. And that has an unfortunate distributional effect, because young people drive a little less than the middle-aged and the poor drive less than the rich. In America, 17% of blacks and 12% of Hispanics who lived in big cities usually took public transport to work in 2013, whereas 7% of whites did. Free parking represents a subsidy for older people that is paid disproportionately by the young and a subsidy for the wealthy that is paid by the poor.
A few crowded American cities, including San Francisco, have abolished their parking minimums. So has one shrinking city—Buffalo, in New York state. But most of the country seems to be stuck with a hugely costly and damaging solution to the parking problem. And the American approach to parking is spreading to some of the world’s fastest-growing cities.
In China, cars park everywhere—in marked spaces, in places where parking is specifically banned, in bicycle lanes, on pavements. In some cities, the fight for parking spaces has become so intense that people install metal barriers to which only they have the key, or persuade their parents to reserve spaces by sitting in them. Beijing’s streets are patrolled by orange-jacketed workers who, in theory, put slips of paper on car windows to mark when the vehicles arrive, and then collect money from drivers when they leave (they also assist novice drivers in the tricky art of parallel parking). In practice, the parking wardens give discounts to drivers who forgo receipts, then pocket the money. Some also make cash from illegal parking spaces.
Beijing’s parking minimums were laid down in 2003, before driving took off, and are modest: just 0.3 spaces per flat in the city centre and 0.5 outside it. They are expected to rise in response to the growing chaos on the streets. Most Indian planners concur that the best way of ameliorating a shortage is to require more off-street parking, says Shreya Gadepalli of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, a think-tank. One reason, she suggests, is that so many of them studied at American universities.
Whether in America or Asia, oceans of free parking might delay a transport revolution. When autonomous cars that are allowed to move with nobody inside them become widespread, demand for private cars could fall sharply. Starting in the morning, one car could take a child to school, a city worker to his office, a student to her lecture, party people to a club, and a security guard to his night shift, all more cheaply than taxis. Cars that now sit idle could become much more active, which would drastically change parking needs.
Parking garages would still be needed in a driverless world, predicts Sean Behr, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Instead of storing vehicles for hours at a time, though, garages might become service centres where shared battery-powered cars could be cleaned, repaired and recharged before being sent back on the road. “We will need better facilities for a smaller number of vehicles,” he suggests. These garages need not be in city centres. In the slow hours of mid-morning and early afternoon, driverless cars could trundle to industrial estates in suburbia. Much of the area now allocated to cars in city centres could be turned into homes, offices or parks.
Mr Shear is already building flats with drop-off and pick-up areas, to accommodate people who travel by Uber cars. In a radically driverless future, he could perhaps do away with many of his parking spaces. But only if consumers decide to forgo car ownership—and whether they do is connected to parking. Where spaces are expensive, shared vehicles that need not be parked are highly attractive. They are less attractive in cities where parking is plentiful and free, such as Miami.
Unlike Africa and Asia, European streets are for the most part well-policed. Although some cities have parking requirements, these are seldom as extravagant as American ones, and have been progressively weakened. Several cities even have parking maximums, which restrict the amount of spaces. Huge buildings rise with hardly any provision for cars: the Shard in London has 95 storeys but just 48 spaces. Yet European cities are much kinder to cars than they usually admit.
To ride in one of Amsterdam’s “scan cars” is to witness the epitome of Western parking enforcement. As it moves through the streets, clicking noises confirm that roof-mounted cameras are snapping the number plates of every parked car. If any vehicle has overstayed—which the system knows because Amsterdam’s parking meters are connected to a database, and drivers are required to enter their number plates when they pay—a second officer is alerted. He rides to the scene on a moped and issues a digital fine. Amsterdam’s parking officers describe their system as fair. They mean it is so ruthlessly efficient that it cannot be beaten.
Just the ticket
Amsterdam charges up to €5 ($5.30) an hour for parking on the street. Visitors can also park underneath office buildings or in large, clean park-and-ride garages run by the city. Drivers thus have many choices and the city raises a lot of money—€190m in 2015. Yet this diverse, market-based system covers only a small slice of parking in Amsterdam. Three-quarters of spaces on the streets of the city centre are occupied not by visitors or commuters but by residents. And the people of Amsterdam, who are so keen on pricing parking for others, would not dream of exposing themselves to market forces.
Anybody who lives in a home without a dedicated space is entitled to buy a permit to park nearby for between €30 and €535 a year. This is a good deal and, not surprisingly, the number of takers in many districts exceeds the number of spaces. So Amsterdam has waiting lists for permits. The longest, in the Westerpark area, is 232 months long. To free more spaces, the city has begun to reimburse permit-holders part of the annual fee if they keep their cars in suburban garages. Take-up is encouraging—which suggests that, despite the long queues, many people do not prize the opportunity to park close to their homes.
A more obvious solution would be to charge more for permits. But that is politically fraught. Amsterdammers believe they have a right to park near their homes, explains Pieter Litjens, the deputy mayor in charge of transport. (They also believe they should be able to leave their bicycles absolutely anywhere for nothing, which is another headache.) So the queues for permits are likely to grow. Amsterdam expects to build 50,000 more homes before 2025, which will mean between 20,000 and 30,000 more cars.
Even more than in America’s sprawling cities, car parking in Amsterdam is unsightly. “The canals are beautiful, and cars are parked along them all the time,” laments Mr Litjens. The city would love to sweep them away, but that would be unpopular. So in one district, De Pijp, a bold (and expensive) remedy is under way. Engineers have drained a canal and are digging an underground garage with 600 parking spaces into the marshy ground beneath. When the car park is finished and sealed, the canal will be refilled with water. The city will then abolish 273 parking spaces on the streets above.
Other cities lauded for their excellent public transport and enthusiasm for market-based solutions to traffic problems also have a blind spot when it comes to residents’ parking. Much of inner London, for example, is covered with residents’ parking zones. The permits are often even cheaper than in Amsterdam: Kensington and Chelsea charges between £80 ($100) and £219 a year for the right to park anywhere in the borough and on the fringe of nearby Westminster. Visitors, on the other hand, must pay between £1.20 and £4.60 an hour. Given that the average home in Kensington and Chelsea sold for £1.9m last year, residents’ parking represents a gift to some of Britain’s richest people.
Despite being the home of Lyft and Uber, two car-sharing services, San Francisco is similarly generous. It charges just $127 a year for residents’ permits. Unlike Amsterdam, though, San Francisco does not cap the number, and in some neighbourhoods one and a half are issued for every parking space. The result is a perpetual scrap for empty kerb. A survey in 2015 found that 53% of permit-holders had spent at least five minutes looking for a space at the end of their most recent trip, and 7% more than half an hour.
As San Francisco’s infuriated drivers cruise around, they crowd the roads and pollute the air. This is a widespread hidden cost of under-priced street parking. Mr Shoup has estimated that cruising for spaces in Westwood village, in Los Angeles, amounts to 950,000 excess vehicle miles travelled per year. Westwood is tiny, with only 470 metered spaces.
There is, however, one exception to the rule that residential parking must never be subjected to market forces. In the 1950s, when it was still far from rich, Japan began to require city-dwellers who did not have parking spaces in their buildings to purchase them. These days anybody who wishes to buy a car must first show a receipt for a space. He or she had better use it: any vehicle without one left on the roadside will be removed by the police in the middle of the night.
Freed of cars, the narrow residential streets of Tokyo are quieter than in other big cities. Every so often a courtyard or spare patch of land has been turned into a car park—some more expensive than others. Takaomi Kondoh, who works for a firm that manages buildings and car parks, explains that prices are usually higher close to transport hubs, because commuters compete for those spaces. Near the central station in Tama, a suburb, the going rate is ¥17,000 per month ($150). Ten minutes’ walk away it drops to ¥10,000.
Once you become accustomed to the idea that city streets are only for driving and walking, and not for parking, it is difficult to imagine how it could possibly be otherwise. Mr Kondoh is so perplexed by an account of a British suburb, with its kerbside commons, that he asks for a diagram. Your correspondent tries to draw his own street, with large rectangles for houses, a line representing the kerb and small rectangles showing all the parked cars. The small rectangles take up a surprising amount of room.
This article appeared in the Briefing section of the print edition under the headline”Sacred spaces”