Parking spaces: Why more parking leads to a lack of parking

Car emissions are talked about a lot, but very little focus is given to parking spaces. Yet, they have bigger impact than you might expect.

Alex Hureau
5 min readApr 26, 2020


Photo by Stephan Müller from Pexels

It’s hard to imagine a modern city without cars lining up the streets. Mind you, not cars that are driving, but parked ones. While most advertisements would have you believe that cars are an exciting way of going out and exploring the world, often showing wide open roads and vast expanses of nature for you to visit, the truth is that most people’s car will rarely, if ever, leave the confines of the city and its surroundings. What we often don’t see is how much space is required to store millions of cars when they are not being used. In fact, cars will spend most of their time idle, with a British study finding that cars are parked at home 80% of the time, and elsewhere for 16% of the remainder. This means cars are, on average, only moving about 4% of the time. A lot of time is spent discussing the moving cars, how we can make them more efficient and reduce their numbers on the road, as well as how to make the roads safer for all users, but not much is said about the impact that storing all these vehicles has. Let’s have a look at what happens when cars aren’t moving, and the wide-scale consequences they have on our lives and our cities.


For one, parking space in cities is often extremely expensive. For a start, they use land. Ask anyone who’s ever had to pay rent in a city, or perhaps even bought land in a city, and you’ll start to get an idea of how expensive even the smallest homes, as well as commercial and office spaces can be. The median price for a one-bedroom apartment in Atlanta, United States, was US$1,590 as of last year. Similar apartments in Montreal, Canada, would set you back CAN$1,490, and in Perth, Australia, AU$1,400. Meanwhile, a spatial analysis performed in the United States shows some cities use upwards of 6.5% of their urban space for parking. On top of that, this parking is often either free or very cheap. Average annual parking costs in the UK only totalled GB£42, compared to GB£1,600 of fuel. On the topic of fuel costs, studies have also found that up to 74% of cars in cities are looking for parking, and that some of them will spend up to an average of 14 minutes doing so. Going back to our 4% figure, we can imagine how much further this decreases the efficiency of cars in cities. The price of land in cities is likely to continue to increase due to urbanization, and, while it’s unlikely that all of these parking spaces could be converted into housing, they certainly do contribute to a less efficient use of the room we have. They also take away green spaces, cause congestion, limit other modes of transportation that could make better use of the same space, and are expensive to maintain.


The space taken away by parking, along with being expensive, also increases urban sprawl. Perhaps the best place to see this in context is to look at places that were built for cars. Malls, despite the image of them being mostly a North American thing, have grown to be found all over the world. And, with every mall, comes a massive parking space to make room for the vehicles that make their way there. Have you ever tried walking from one end of a parking lot to another? Now imagine this effect at the scale of the city you live in. As more parking spaces are offered, destinations tend to become more spread out. Furthermore, as more parking is available, and the distances increase, cars become more appealing to people, reducing incentives to walk, cycle, or use public transport. After all, if there’s parking waiting for you when you arrive, why not just drive? It’s easy to see how this feedback loop quickly becomes detrimental. As more people take their car, and want to subsequently park it, we end up in a situation where there isn’t enough parking. What’s more, there is already a lot of parking in most cities, with a study finding an average of 2.2 parking spaces per car in one American county, it’s just not necessarily where people all want to be at the same time. During the day, everyone wants their car to be near their workplace, then, during the evening, everyone wants to be parked at a venue, at a restaurant, or close to the shops. The more parking spaces we build, the more this effect increases.


In addition to the negative environmental impacts caused by urban sprawl, it turns out the parking spaces themselves have harmful effects. In some instances, their impact is even worse than the cars that will occupy them. For example, a study found that sulfur dioxide emissions, which are responsible for respiratory problems, and acidification were to a much higher extent caused by parking infrastructure than from driving. Similarly, emissions of particulate matters, which can trigger cardiovascular problems, are created in equal measure by driving cars and parking spaces. Aside from emissions, the hydrological cycle is also an important element to consider. Parking spaces are a major contributor to the expansion of impervious areas in urban areas, meaning they prevent water from gradually escaping into the ground. As a result, rain is much more likely to cause floods, and since the soil can no longer absorb water, dry seasons become even dryer. To top it off, the water that runs off from parking spaces is often full of contaminants that then make their way directly into our watersheds.

What can be done

Thankfully, cities are slowly becoming aware of these issues and the many others caused by parking infrastructure. An urban trailblazer, Amsterdam, Netherlands, has had much success focusing on alternatives to cars, rather than expanding parking infrastructure in the city. Similar actions have been taken by other cities, such as Zurich, Switzerland. Starting in 1996, the city capped its parking infrastructure to its 1990 level, with the idea that any newly built parking in the urban core would see a one-to-one removal of parking in its more central squares. As a result, many of the more central areas are now free for pedestrians to use, and the city image has changed drastically. In the United States, Philadelphia reduced its off-street parking by 7% between 2010 and 2015, and San Francisco has been experimenting with dynamic pricing to entice people to use alternatives to their automobile. These changes take time, and the results are not always immediately visible, but the long-term results speak for themselves in cities that opted to change decades ago. Parking spaces are an important aspect of car culture that we need to address, and the sooner we do it, the sooner we will start seeing results.

Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay