There Is Too Much Parking In LA. There Is Too Little Parking In LA. Discuss.
THIS STORY IS PART OF HOW TO L.A., OUR ONGOING SERIES OF PRACTICAL GUIDES FOR DAY-TO-DAY LIVING IN LOS ANGELES.
Parking in Los Angeles has been called the "lowest circle of hell," a "blood sport" and a few other choice combinations of adjectives and expletives. But dealing with parking here, and all the grief that comes with it, is hard to avoid.
But when we shake our fists at parking, what exactly are we railing against?
The parking supply?
Here's some broad context about what analysts say the problem is, how we got here, and signs about where we might be headed next.
THERE IS TOO MUCH PARKING IN L.A. THERE IS TOO LITTLE PARKING IN L.A.
Part of the problem is that we're not even on the same page about what the problem is.
Many residents (including dozens of you who wrote in to share your parking gripes with us) argue that we just need more lots, structures, unpermitted street parking and dedicated spots in apartment buildings so that we don't have to battle it out in the streets anymore. But many transportation experts say it's the opposite: L.A. has far too much parking.
It may not seem that way when you're trying to find a spot, but keep in mind that parking availability varies wildly across the city and county, so what you experience in, say, Koreatown or downtown L.A. is not representative of the full parking situation. Here's the (very) big parking picture:
The total space dedicated to surface lot parking in L.A. County is greater than the size of four Manhattans. That's about 101 square miles, according to a 2018 study by design firm Woods Bagot. Within the city of L.A., the total surface lot space is larger than the entire size of Pasadena, or about 27 square miles.
And if you account for even more types of parking spaces — like on-street parking and off-street parking (i.e., lots and garages for residential and non-residential buildings) — that's about 200 square miles, or 14% of L.A. County's land committed to parking, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.
That study estimated that there were about 3.3 parking spaces for each of the 5.6 million vehicles in the county at the time of data collection.
Some of the criticism against plentiful parking is that it encourages more driving and adds to traffic congestion, that it takes up land which could be used for other purposes (like housing), and that it contributes to our carbon emissions.
Yes, alternative modes of transportation do exist, but that doesn't necessarily mean those options are realistic for, or interesting to, everyone. So as long as we've got cars, we're going to need a place to put them.
THE ROUTE TO HERE
Our well-known reliance on cars took shape in Los Angeles's post-World War II era, which saw a massive development boom, the embrace of freeways, abandonment of the streetcar system and general urban sprawl.
Parking requirements came of age around this time, too. As the adoption of cars grew in the 1910s and '20s, and development picked up pace, so did the need to set some rules about parking availability.
"Imagine a situation where there wasn't enough space for [cars], and people were putting cars in places like people are putting scooters now," said Juan Matute, deputy director of UCLA's Institute for Transportation Studies. "And so the approach at the time was, okay, whenever we're doing some sort of new land use project — an apartment, strip mall, market — we need to make sure that it's not increasing demand for parking."
That meant ensuring that new developments had parking spaces to go along with them. In the mid-1930s, Los Angeles began requiring that new residential units come with a minimum number of parking spaces. And as the development boom took off, more parking cropped up with it.
Today, minimum parking requirements are the norm for apartments, shops, restaurants and other destinations across the county. In the city of L.A., a single-family home is required to have two dedicated parking spots. Restaurants and cafes must have one parking spot per 100 square feet the building takes up, and apartment buildings are required to have 1-2 spots per unit depending on the size of the unit and how many people it can accommodate. (You can see a full list of requirements here.)
Some neighborhoods, like Koreatown, have housing stock that was largely built before L.A. parking requirements took off. Combine that with a population surge and gentrification and you arrive at today's situation: daily residential parking as a combative sport.
THIS IS ALSO PARTIALLY WHY L.A. HAS SO MUCH VALET
Parking regulations/minimums might not be the only reason valet parking is such a fixture in L.A. — you could also consider the work of Herb Citrin, the "godfather of valet," who is largely credited with popularizing the service in L.A. and transforming it into an industry — but they play a role.
For example, a business can opt for a valet service as a way to fit in more parking onto less land and meet its parking requirement. And if, for example, a restaurant (requiring one parking spot per 100 square feet) wants to move into a space formerly occupied by a retail store (requiring one parking spot per 250 feet), it has the flexibility to do so by getting a valet service that can help it meet its parking requirement. Valet is, to some degree, a parking loophole (or wormhole — WHERE DOES THE CAR GO?!).
JUST HOW EXPENSIVE IS PARKING IN L.A.?
There was a common theme among many who wrote to us with their parking complaints: the cost of parking is too damn high. Is it true? How do we stack up against other major cities?
Again, because parking situations are so varied across the city and county, it's tricky to pin down exactly how expensive it is on the whole. But here's some of the data available:
- HOURLY: Downtown L.A., likely the priciest part of the city for parking, ranks as the 7th most expensive major city business district out of 40 U.S. cities in terms of hourly parking rates, at a median rate of $9.50 an hour, according to parking service provider Parkopedia's 2018 U.S. Parking Index.
That figure takes into account the rates of all publicly available off-street parking facilities in Parkopedia's database, which includes data for central business districts of major U.S. cities. Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis all outrank L.A. And while L.A.'s figure is pretty high, it doesn't come anywhere close to the number one most expensive business district — New York City — which has a median hourly parking rate of $27.
- MONTHLY: When it comes to downtown L.A.'s daily and monthly parking rates, it ranks lower on the list: 19th and 16th, respectively, according to Parkopedia's top 40 index. New York City once again tops both those lists at a median of $42.25 daily (compared to L.A.'s $16) and $616 for unreserved monthly parking (compared to $190 in L.A.).
While this isn't a ton of data, it does suggest that parking in the most high-demand part of L.A. is relatively pricey compared to other U.S. cities — but nowhere near as bad as it could be.
- FINES: Here's where L.A. city shoots up toward the top of the list. The average parking ticket in L.A. is $68, according to LADOT — and a 2017 study from INRIX, a mobility analytics company, reported that L.A. drivers receive an average of 1.05 tickets per year. That means across the board, Angelenos pay $71 a year on parking fines, or $148 million collectively across the city. That's way above the average amount that drivers across the United States pay in parking fines per year — just $12.
In this regard, L.A. outranks all other major cities that INRIX surveyed — except, again, New York City. Its drivers spend $85 per year on parking fines. (We get it, parking in NYC is awful.)
The picture of overall costs looks different, however, if you include not only paid lots and fines, but also the "free" stuff — think: residential street parking, plaza lots, private driveways and office buildings.
OH RIGHT. TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE FREE PARKING
Well, some analysts think there's no such thing.
Donald Shoup, a research professor of urban planning at UCLA, argues that ostensibly "free" parking — think grocery stores, shopping malls, apartment buildings and elsewhere — simply passes on invisible costs in other ways, leaving the entire community, including non-drivers, to shoulder the burden. He described the situation in his influential 2005 book, "The High Cost of Free Parking":
"If drivers don't pay for parking, who does? Everyone does, even if they don't drive. Initially the developer pays for the required parking, but soon the tenants do, and then their customers, and so on, until the cost of parking has diffused everywhere in the economy. When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking."
WHAT IS L.A. DOING ABOUT THE PARKING SITUATION?
We're not in a fun position. L.A. is already deep in car-centrism and sprawl, and there's no quick way to change that. However, a few things are already happening that might gradually ease some of our parking pressures, like the expansion of Metro, use of rideshare services, e-scooters, bikes and the slow march toward a possible autonomous vehicle future.
In recent years a few proposals have cropped up that are aimed at making parking at least a little more efficient.
L.A. rolled out LA Express Park back in 2012, a pilot program that uses demand-based pricing for street meters downtown and supplies realtime information about available spaces and rates. City leaders have largely seen the project as a success, and it's since expanded into Westwood in 2015 and Hollywood in 2018.
Another idea has been gaining in popularity in cities across the U.S.: lowering or eliminating minimum parking requirements in certain areas. That would involve stripping the requirement for new developments to have a certain number of dedicated parking spots. Developers would still be free to build them, of course — they just wouldn't be required to.
"Parking requirements are forcing the parking supply up," Shoup said. "Removing the parking requirements doesn't force the supply down. It just says we won't force you to increase it beyond what you would normally provide."
A change like that, if it happened, might be likely to occur in a dense, transit-friendly area. Downtown L.A. has already experimented with something similar. In 1999 the city launched a program that allowed downtown L.A. to convert older commercial buildings into housing. One of several provisions was that developers would not have to add on the required amount of parking spaces that new housing would typically mandate. The housing boom of the time saw 70 buildings converted into more than 6,000 housing units between 1999 and 2008..
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning at UCLA, analyzed the program and found it led to more flexibility with parking.
Some developers used offsite garages instead of digging new ones for residents, while in other cases they supplied new parking spots but not as many as would have been required under the general city standard. He also found that housing units that did not come with parking were associated with a savings of about $200 compared to those that came bundled with spaces.
The idea of eliminating or reducing parking minimums is not without thorns, however.
Some arguments against it say that housing without parking wouldn't necessarily be cheaper, since developers could just pocket the extra savings, and that without dramatic improvements in public transportation, neighborhoods would just end up with more competition for already limited curb space.
While the city hasn't quite jumped on board with the move, in 2013 it did approve the Cornfield Arroyo Seco Specific Plan, a project to create a mixed-use neighborhood that doesn't come with any parking requirements.
In the years since then, more and more cities have gone the way of reducing parking minimums. Santa Monica did away with them in 2017. San Francisco did the same in late 2018, and San Diego followed in March 2019. And SB 50, the controversial state bill that would allow for taller, more dense development near transit, would also relax or eliminate parking requirements in those same areas.
Any policy changes or technological advances wouldn't produce any significant changes in our day-to-day parking for a good while, of course. Till then, we'll have lean on our coping and survival skills.