Can the Parking Lot Speak? Uncovering Untold Histories of Parking in America

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Lots of Parking: Land Use in a Car Culture is in some ways a ground-breaking book. Prior to its publication in 2004, there were no books devoted to the history of parking in the United States. Countless books existed about the moving automobile; virtually none about the parked car. A few brief accounts had appeared, usually in the form of articles, but these were limited primarily to parking in individual cities and, curiously, universities. Richard Longstreth is the exception, as he recounted aspects of parking history in his City Center to Regional Mall (1997) and The Buildings of Main Street (2000), but parking was not the focus of either.

John A. Jakle, professor of geography and Keith A. Sculle, historic preservationist and historian, are the authors of Lots. Much has been written about parking by engineers, architects, and city planners, but historians have been noticeably absent from the literature. Documentation has fallen into three major categories: lot and garage design; demand, capacity, and regulation; and the parking lot as an urban form. Jakle and Sculle’s work has filled the void, and become the first in a recent cascade of books about many aspects of parking, including Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking (2005); McDonald’s The Parking Garage (2007); and Ben-Joseph’s Rethinking A Lot(2012).

Lots is limited to the history of commercial and institutional parking, focusing on large urban areas. It omits residential parking—a topic which, the authors rightly note, is deserving of its own study. They admit that parking is considered boring by most Americans, that is, until a free spot cannot be located. The parking space is a transitional area for the car’s driver and passengers, who spend only a few minutes of each day parking and unparking. Not surprisingly, they do not give much consideration to what is for them a transitory space. The vehicle, in contrast, spends most of its day stationary, somewhere in a fixed place. With approximately 171 million cars on the road in 1998 (today, more than 253 million), an enormous amount of American real estate is devoted exclusively to the storage of motionless vehicles. Lots not only traces the history of parking and how that amount of land came to be committed to it, but also the effect of these unpeopled properties on cities’ centers.

lots of parking land use in a car culture

The authors argue that parking is a clearly-defined, integral, and now permanent part of the landscape of cities. Quoting Moudon in “Urban Morphology” (1997), they define a city’s form as consisting of three basic elements: 1) buildings as structures; 2) the open space between buildings; and, 3) streets as paths for movement. Parking in its various forms plays a part in all three: parking garages and decks are buildings; parking lots are spaces separating buildings; and on-street parking contests the flow of street traffic (14).

The book is divided into nine chapters which address different phases of the history of parking. Chapters 1-4 examine the development of surface parking, beginning in the late 1800s with the advent of on-street parking, an extension of the curbside parking of horses and horse-drawn conveyances. Early motorized carriages parked in similarly haphazard fashions. By the early twentieth century, however, the advent of mass-produced, affordable cars quickly made traffic regulation mandatory. The courts were ultimately called upon to grant municipalities the necessary powers to restrict the use of the streets for travel, to empower police to enforce newly-enacted traffic ordinances, and to permit parking at the curb (28). One of the earliest laws made it illegal to block a fire hydrant (29).

Cities undertook travel flow studies, and engineers debated the efficiencies and efficacies of curbside (parallel) vs. angled vs. straight (right-angle) parking. Merchants began to provide off-street parking, a process leading to the eventual re-orientation of the building to the street. The setback of downtown businesses from the curb for off-street parking in front was a major evolution in urban form. The vehicle, with its need for curb cuts and inclines, asserted its ascendance over the pedestrian. The prioritizing of the car-arriving customer over the pedestrian customer had begun.

The advent of the parking lot began as early as 1914 in Pittsburgh (48), and commercial surface parking has been a city staple ever since. The first lots were on empty parcels, but quickly the demolition of old, dilapidated, and vacant buildings became the primary source of new land for parking. Cities typically reduced tax assessments on such buildings, while the valuation of land remained high. It was more cost effective to tear down the structures and create an inexpensive, money-generating parking venue. In effect, owning a parking lot became a form of speculative land-banking, a device for holding onto valuable real estate in the hope of future development. Unfortunately for the cities, many of these temporary stop-gap lots became permanent (61-62).

The examination of parking lots continues in chapter 4, which contains a critique of their aesthetics and their negative environmental impacts (flooding from storm-water runoff, trash accumulation, air and water pollution, and heat islands). The authors excel in outlining the evolutions of parking lot terminology, paving, signage, vehicle orientation, and transition from attendant to self-parking lots.

Parking garages are considered in chapters 5-7. Garages were necessary in the early days of horseless carriages without roofs, and to protect metal finishes from the inadequacies of automotive paints. Pre-dating parking lots, the first garages, built in the late 1890s, were constructed by members-only auto clubs, and provided fully-enclosed, all-purpose services, including fueling, servicing, repairs, washing, painting, and storage (115). Retailers quickly realized the possibilities, and public garages were soon widely available in large cities. Garages, while more expensive than lots, provided parking for larger numbers of vehicles. By the 1930s, the storage of cars to protect them from the weather became unnecessary with the introduction of Duco automotive lacquer. The first open parking garages (parking decks) opened later that decade (131). Starting at the end of World War II, parking garage and deck design was increasingly the study of traffic engineers, who were concerned with efficient designs, varying capacity, short-term versus all-day parkers, and rate structure. The primary concern, however, was how rapidly vehicles moved through the structure (140). Architects were increasingly marginalized in the process, and the design of a parking deck was “undoubtedly one of architecture’s least demanding assignments” (146).

Chapter 7 contains a quick summary of various downtown redevelopment strategies implemented by American cities in the second half of the twentieth century, from skyscrapers, to convention centers, to professional sports arenas—all of which required substantial amounts of parking. New zoning requirements mandated off-street parking for virtually every land use code devised by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, and “parking became the arbiter of downtown urban form” (182). The new regulations meant that parking costs were passed along by employers and merchants to their employees (in lower wages paid) and to their customers (in higher prices charged). Citing Donald Shoup in “The High Cost of Free Parking” (1997), the authors note that the true cost of parking remains hidden, making free parking “a fertility drug for cars” that only incites more automotive use (183). The suburban shopping center and mall were prime examples of highly subsidized free parking, and chapter 8 recounts their history. This treatment is cursory and unsubstantial. The same applies to the very brief final chapter of miscellany, throwing together institutions, airports, recreations, and industries.

The book has no clearly defined thesis, and its organization is neither consistently chronological nor thematic. The tri-partite, thematic sectional divisions appear to have been imposed upon the nine chapters, and do not provide the reader with topical guidance. The effect is disjointed, and the three sections do not present a coherent whole.

Chapters 7-9 are the weakest segments of the book. In discussing downtown redevelopment, the authors state that decentralization of the city centers “was the result of downtown traffic congestion intensified by a general lack of parking” (157). Such a simplistic statement completely ignores the significance of a number of events that took place in post-World War II America that contributed to the move away from urban centers. Some of those factors included the search for housing by returning GIs; the post-war baby boom; the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, which created the interstate highway system; urban renewal and the removal of blight; and white flight.

The book’s conclusion is puzzling. The authors begin by posing questions about the significance of parking in the American landscape; the success in reconfiguring of the built environment around parking; and how to proceed in the future. They argue for parking’s historical importance and its inclusion in historic preservation efforts (237).

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New Urbanists’ dystopian future

It is in their discussion of how to proceed in the future that Jakle and Sculle fall short. Their attack on the New Urbanists appears to the reader as more of a rant than a reasoned attack. “The so-called New Urbanists” harbor a “profound dissatisfaction with the nation’s present embrace of the automobile and their dislike of its accoutrements, such as parking lots….” (241). The authors fault the reformers’ misunderstanding of historical realities, and accuse them of suffering from the American myth of community which never really existed (243). Championed are the voiceless people who wish to preserve the status quo: Americans like their cars and do not mind committing space and time to driving or parking (242).

They further claim that it has been the embrace of traditional values that have produced the current American way of life. Those values (freedom of choice and the pursuit of happiness), along with economic expansion and low-density settlement, have been “the bulwarks upon which the nation’s automobile dependence has been built” (241). What the authors have completely overlooked is the role that the big oil and car companies played in the decline of rail transit and the break-up of electric tram networks. One example is the collusion of General Motors and Standard Oil of California to destroy in Los Angeles what was in 1935 the world’s largest interurban electric railway system. GM acquired local rail systems, dismantled them, and replaced them with GM buses fueled by Standard Oil. It is one thing if Americans freely embraced the independence offered by the automobile, and must now bear the resulting vehicular dependence. It is another entirely if their “free choice” was in fact a lack of choice orchestrated by powerful entities whose primary goal was financial.

Jakle and Sculle have succeeded in raising the profile of parking and illuminating how the U.S. accepted the parking imperative. By pulling together elements of the history of parking and making an initial step toward a deeper understanding of this neglected but important urban form, they have laid a substantial foundation which will aid future researchers.

Laura Drummond is the principal and founder of Atlanta Preservation and Planning Services.  She has a B.A. in Religion from Duke University; an M.A. in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary; an M.S. in Library & Information Science from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and an M.A. in Heritage Preservation from Georgia State University.  She is currently a History doctoral candidate at GSU.