icon The Guru Is In

Reclaiming the Carscape

5 min read

In 1898, New York City hosted the first international conference of urban planners to tackle an urgent global crisis of health, congestion and overcrowding – what to do about the horses?

Horses had become essential to 19th century urban living. Everything the city needed came into it on horse-drawn vehicles (“Without horses, cities would quite literally starve”). Even railroad freight had to be collected and distributed by horses, so the railroads (the Amazon, FedEx and UPS of their day) owned many of the largest fleets of carriages and stables of horses. Horses were everywhere: in 1880, New York and Brooklyn had 150,000 or more. Forty died every day, through accidents (a severely injured horse would be shot on the spot) or overwork (the average streetcar horse lived two years). When a horse died, it lay where it fell until the city’s removal vehicle arrived and the 1,300-pound corpse could be wrestled onto it. This being itself hazardous, street cleaners often waited for it to putrefy so it could be sawn into pieces, bringing flies by the literal millions, chronic disease and epidemic risk, traffic congestion and accidents.

The living horses daily produced 40,000 gallons of urine, along with three to four million pounds of manure, which had to be scraped up and carted off. The volume so outstripped any conceivable productive use that vacant lots were piled up to 60 feet high with the stuff, with a stench “intolerable.”

Scheduled for ten days, the conference broke up after only three because nobody saw any conceivable solution.

Unbeknownst to the planners, urban equine disruption had already begun in the American Midwest, and within 20 years, the horse pollution problem in New York and other American cities had vanished. By 1917, almost every American City Magazine photo of large cities showed downtown streets lined with horseless carriages, and urbanites lauded the new arrival because it made cities cleaner and safer, both from disease and accident. Naturally there was a side effect, though at the time nobody thought much about it: parking.

Fast forward 100 years, and parking is now the country’s least efficient use of urban space. Excluding private garages, driveways and unspaced curbs, for every vehicle in America, there are eight parking spaces, surfaces and structures. Those two billion urban parking spaces cover 7.4 million acres of floor area ratio (FAR), three-and-a-half times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The 11,600 square miles of hardscape is bigger than Massachusetts.

So much urban FAR consumed for so little effective utilization has made parking an increasingly bitter tussle of urban development politics. In virtually every American city, zoning laws and regulations mandate minimum additional parking spaces be added for each foot of FAR. To the developer, this is revenue-deadweight cost estimated at $22,200 per structured space, and to housing advocates it’s lost housing opportunity. Nevertheless, the mandatory parking is included, for fear the neighbors will politically riot.

Is all this mandatory new parking necessary? To judge by the gestalt of reading the 25th anniversary issue of Parking Today (free and well worth reading!), we may have passed peak parking demand pre-pandemic. Consider:

  • Commercial vehicles make ten billion deliveries nationwide annually, including 25 billion parcel deliveries, two billion shared rides, one billion meals and one billion grocery deliveries. Every additional delivery is one less parking event at a store.
  • With real-time camera monitoring, license plate recognition (LPR) software, automated garages or demarcated lots, and in-vehicle GPS, spaces in a parking structure can be rented and optimized just like airline seats or hotel rooms, with concomitant increases in effective occupancy. As parking structure occupancy goes up, the number of spaces needed to accommodate the demand drops. And all that optimization tech costs $500 per space, boosting maximum park-use occupancy from 90 percent to 98 percent, which means eight to ten percent fewer spaces needed.
  • Dynamic pricing is coming to metered spaces. Cities will soon be able to use market pricing for metered parking spaces, tied to cameras, AI systems and touchless electronic payments. Once commercial vehicles are GPS or LPR tracked, they will be auto charged and their parking space usage will further decline.

Then came Covid’s disruption of urban traffic and commuting patterns:

  • Nationwide, total goods and services bought online are now greater than those bought in-person, and online’s market share will continue to rise.
  • Employees who work half-time from home save $2,500 to $4,000 a year in commuting costs, and their employers can save an average of $11,000 per year.
  • Hybrid work is rapidly becoming the norm. Economists surveyed by Harvard Business School estimated that one in six workers will permanently work at home at least one day a week. Personally, I think it’ll be much higher.
  • Markets, food festivals, pop-up kitchens and retail are booming in parking lots, especially as people now have a new affinity for outdoor face-to-face interactions.
  • Actual re-occupancy of office buildings—the percent-age of people coming to the office each workday—appears stuck at about 30 percent. Is your workforce hurrying back to its commute? Mine isn’t.

The explosive growth of automobiles reduced 20th century downtown street areas by 33 percent to 50 percent. Today, with people’s newfound embrace of alfresco dining restaurants have tiptoed into, tacitly expropriated, and “temporarily” fenced the curbside street. These entrepreneurs will not willingly surrender their new business-saving rent-free retail FAR, and with office commuting no longer an undammable diurnal tide, they may not have pressure to do so.

Horses had a century of unchallenged dominance of the urban streetscape before they gave way to automobiles, and for the ensuing century no one challenged the car’s streetscape dominion over streetscape. But the pandemic, autonomous vehicle, smart-parking-pricing app, and drone delivery bot may topple the automobile from its urban-political altar, and if they do, nothing collapses faster than the value of immovable real estate no one wants to pay to occupy. If that happens, the political economics of new affordable housing development will be upended, and existing affordable housing owners will suddenly have intriguing adaptive-reuse and density-boost-development opportunities.

David A. Smith is founder and CEO of the Affordable Housing Institute, a Boston-based global nonprofit consultancy that works around the world (60 countries so far) accelerating affordable housing impact via program design, entity development and financial product innovations. Write him at dsmith@affordablehousinginstitute.org.