Parking lots get a bad rap, but pandemic shows value of wide-open urban spaces, says Joe Mathews

By Joe Mathews

Traffic cones line the Dodger Stadium parking lot while it’s used as a COVID-19 vaccine site, Mar 29, 2021, Los Angeles, California, USA. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Southern California is traditionally considered the heart of car culture, and for years, it was tough to get around many places if you didn’t have four wheels. So it may come as a surprise to think that the humble parking lot could one day become an endangered species here. It’s part of a bigger trend that’s been underway over the last 10 to 20 years, as public transit options increase. 

Now some state and local officials are talking about phasing out or doing away with parking requirements altogether, especially when it comes to new housing developments.    

Commentator Joe Mathews says we ought to think carefully before we get rid of all of these flexible public spaces.

Read Mathews’ column below:

Friends, Californians, fellow drivers, stop honking your horns and lend me your ears.

I come to bury California’s parking lots, not to praise them.

The evil that abundant parking spaces do lives long after the ground is paved over.

So, say the honorable officials and wise engineers of California. They tell us that parking consumes huge amounts of property that might be used more productively for business, housing, or transit infrastructure like bus or bike lanes. In LA County alone, parking covers 200 square miles. Most parking spaces are empty most of the time — people don’t park at home when they are at work, or park at work when they are at home.

Abundant and cheap parking encourages people to drive when they might walk or bike, which would improve their health. More driving means more accidents, and more injuries and death for car passengers and pedestrians. All that driving also creates pollution and greenhouse gases.

So, I understand why our cities are ganging up and sticking their knives into the Caesar of municipal parking requirements: the minimum number of spaces that must accompany new development. These requirements encourage sprawl, since parking requires more money and land, and property is cheaper and more plentiful far from our city centers. These rules also effectively block the construction of smaller, denser, more affordable housing, and the repurposing of old buildings for new purposes.

A number of cities are assassinating these requirements to make it easier to build new housing, without the extra costs and land necessary for parking. This year, Berkeley, following the example of a 2018 San Francisco ordinance, eliminated off-street parking requirements for new developments. Sacramento abolished its parking minimums as part of a broader zoning reform. San Diego and Oakland have eliminated parking requirements near transit, and San Jose may follow suit.

Now, higher levels of government are trying to finish off the parking lot. A bill from Assemblymember Laura Friedman of Glendale would eliminate parking requirements statewide for new buildings within half a mile of a transit corridor or major stop. President Biden’s infrastructure package includes provisions that would make it easier to eliminate parking requirements nationwide, in service of making construction more affordable.

I know such anti-parking policies are well-intentioned and honorable. And yet, I stare into the bleak future of the California parking lot, and my heart feels a strange sadness.

So, I speak now not to disprove what our honorable policymakers and editorial writers say, but here I am to speak what I have seen and known. Parking lots have been, for all their faults, good and true friends to me and our communities too.

Public lots often provide revenues to cash-starved cities. And local parking requirements also provide communities precious leverage with developers. Cities often offer exemptions from parking requirements in return for the developers providing more affordable units, or community benefits like parks, bus shuttles, or libraries to accompany their projects. Anti-eviction activists have used parking requirements to fight new developments that might displace existing residents.

But our state’s leaders say parking is a plague upon our communities. And they are wise and honorable people.

But have not parking lots provided great utility, even life-saving service, during the COVID plague? Think how many more people might have died if our state didn’t have so many large parking lots — from Petco Park-adjacent lots in San Diego, to the Disneyland Resort parking garage in Anaheim, to the Cal Expo and State Fair lots in Sacramento — that could be turned into mass testing sites. Many of these same lots became centers for mass vaccination that finally allowed the state to control the coronavirus. No wonder that Gov. Gavin Newsom gave his state-of-the-state speech at Dodger Stadium, surrounded by its ocean of heroic parking lots.

But the powers-that-be say parking lots prioritize cars over humans.  

Sure, I did see hospitals use their lots to set up tents and house patients during COVID surges. Communities turned parking lots into tent cities to shelter the homeless safely, and temporarily, with the virus spreading.

But those who would eliminate parking are right honorable public servants. Abundant parking, they remind us, robs our children of better futures. And they speak true.

Yet, with the state closing its schools and failing to provide reliable broadband, parking lots were all many young Californians had left.

Across the state, I encountered students, without reliable Internet at home, camped out in the parking lots of closed libraries and coffee shops so they could connect to the Wi-Fi they needed to continue their lessons. School districts routinely distributed laptops and books, and collected homework, in drive-through lines in their parking lots. And might our parking lots have saved in-person education itself, had they been allowed to become outdoor classrooms for our children?

Parking lots are bad for business, those honorable parking killers say. But weren’t parking lots also a godsend for business during the pandemic? Cities, including those who were aggressive in using their parking lots to allow restaurants and retailers to remain open and serve customers safely outside. Large parking lots became dormant rental cars, and shipping containers that overflowed from ports whose workers couldn’t keep up with incoming traffic.

When our greatest gathering points closed, did not parking lots step in to provide solace and communal experience? In my hometown of Pasadena and so many other places, large parking lots became drive-in movie theaters. Churches, unable to safely use their sanctuaries, held services in parking lots; I took some comfort from a “drive-in Mass” I attended at the parking lot of Santa Rosa Catholic Church in Cambria.

You could even say parking lots saved democratic politics, as election rallies and events moved to drive-in. Might our fair state still be slurred daily by President Trump, without the dedicated service of so many parking lots to Joe Biden’s campaign?

I know that, after the traumas and loss of the last year, I am weak-minded and prone to cling to the familiar. I know that our honorable policymakers are right, and that we should rejoice, not cry, at the demise of the California parking lot. But my eyes, clouded by tears, see the progressive movement to reduce parking as both comedy and tragedy, of the kind Shakespeare might have written.   

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.



Darrell Satzman