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When it comes to cars, there is no housing crisis (just an existential one)

Bruce Bennett
Getty Images

What would life in America be like if we focused on people instead of cars? One man makes the case that the pursuit of abundant parking is upending our cities and our lives, but that change is within reach.

Who is he? Henry Grabar is a journalist and the author of Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. His writing and research focuses on housing, transport, and the environment.

What's the big deal? According to Grabar's work, the U.S is facing a crisis of excess with parking. And it has more of an impact on your life than you may think.

  • Grabar lists some of the things we've sacrificed in order to create parking: front porches, more affordable housing, and plenty of time spent looking for a spot in the neighborhood. 
  • In fact, his research shows that by square footage, there is more housing for each car in this country than there is housing for each person. In 2016, Bloomberg reported that there were more three-car garages being built than one-bedroom apartments.   
  • The issue starts with building permits, Grabar said. Almost any new project is required by law to include a minimum number of parking spaces, but the same can't be said for housing proposals. In fact, for many new constructions, there is a cap on the number of housing units allowed.

  • Want more on infrastructure and the future? Listen to Consider This on how the EPA wants millions more electric vehicles on the roads.

    What's he saying? Grabar spoke with NPR's Juana Summers to discuss the ideas of housing for machines rather than humans — and what a better future might look like in his eyes.

    On how parking requires resources:

    Parking takes up a lot of space, and it is very expensive to build. I talked to a planner who described it to me like this: Everybody comes to the planning department, and they have this project. And it's like an ice sculpture. And by the time we're done whittling it down to make sure there's enough parking, what you wind up with is an ice cube. And I think that neatly summarizes the distinction between pre-parking American architecture, which is ornate and interesting and fills the whole lot, and post-parking American architecture, which basically looks like a fast food restaurant surrounded by parking spaces. 

    On how to improve parking in the U.S.:

    The more parking you create, the more people drive. And the more people drive, the more parking you need to create. We have created this vicious cycle of this sort of ruined urban environment in which it's impossible to do anything but drive. But there is another cycle. There is a virtuous cycle in which you create spaces with less parking, with parking that's not in front of the store but behind it, where residences are a little closer together, where streets are more walkable. And in an environment like this, it becomes possible not to drive so much.  

    On how privilege plays into living in a walkable community:

    I think that's one thing that we've seen in the last couple of decades — these parking-challenged neighborhoods which were slated for demolition in the 1950s and '60s have become some of the most expensive places to live in America.  Now, you could say that's all the more reason why we need to ensure that those neighborhoods still have plentiful parking — to ensure that people who can't afford to live there can still drive there. But to me, free parking in an expensive, walkable neighborhood seems like a pretty lousy consolation prize.

    I think the focus ought to be on creating more neighborhoods like those neighborhoods. Why are they in such limited supply? That's the question we should be asking ourselves. And the answer is because everybody who's building a new neighborhood is confronted with the obligation to provide thousands and thousands of parking spaces. 

    Grabar says suburbs like Fort Greene in New York have become the most walkable, but also the most expensive.
    Spencer Platt / Getty Images
    Getty Images
    Grabar says neighborhoods like Fort Greene in Brooklyn have become among the most walkable, but also the most expensive.

    So, what now?

  • Grabar says that in order to create more walkable communities that aren't unaffordable, parking needs to be less of a priority.
  • "We have effectively made it impossible to build more neighborhoods like Wicker Park, like Santa Monica, like Fort Greene. And it's no coincidence that those are some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country. It's in part because they're so rare." 
  • Learn more:

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    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.