Moving on from car-as-king development

We could build great places again if we can get the parking right

THE DESIGN DILEMMA for America’s current generation of city builders is what to do about cars, and in particular parking. Our most beloved places were built before cars became the common person’s primary means for autonomy and travel. Yet reversion to car-free design, which makes sense to reduce auto emissions and combat climate change, is not yet feasible for most places.

Both government regulation and market demand have reinforced a car-as-king development pattern. Decades ago, in the drive-thru era, city and town leaders retrofitted public parking into downtowns originally laid out for people arriving on foot or by train or trolley. They figured it was a choice between parking and a ghost town fate. After the retrofit, zoning’s parking minimums took over for all future development. No longer would cities and towns need to construct parking — that function was privatized. Each parcel of land would be built with ample on-site private parking to accommodate all drivers who might ever arrive at the parcel, for the convenience of many.

The Everyday Cafe in Weymouth.

Ample on-site, private parking encourages driving and car-ownership, increases the cover of impervious surfaces and amount of polluted runoff, adds to the high cost of building, limits the buildout of properties, prevents redevelopment of some properties, and inhibits pedestrian-friendly design of neighborhoods. Sometimes sitting in gridlock is easier on the nerves than crossing a car-scape on foot. On top of it all, or maybe to summarize: On-site parking makes for ugly places.

Car-oriented design usually orients our eyes at garage doors and pavement. There are exceptions. On a commercial strip in Weymouth live two kitschy charmers, souvenirs of the mid-century remaking of Greater Boston for drivers — a double-double drive-thru. One is for coffee, the other ice cream, both with double car ports.

Apparently drive-thrus fronting multi-lane arterials can be cute, but they are not welcome in downtown Concord, where hand-laid brick, colonial quaintness, and shops undaunted by Amazon predominate. In Concord, drive-thrus are even prohibited, by zoning: there shall be no “service of food and beverages directly to a customer in a motor vehicle” — anywhere in the town. Yet, even downtown Concord has a public parking lot.

Downtown Concord

Weston’s 1965 Master Plan called for “remedial town action” to add public parking to its colonial-themed town center. Most towns did as Weston did and added paved lots, or garages. Greater Boston’s little downtowns are still thriving after all of these years, after strip malls and drive-thrus, after shopping malls, and after Amazon, in large part for their walkability, historic character, libraries, train stations, and pre-car layouts, but also probably for the convenient parking that got shoehorned in by mid-century planners.

Maybe we could build great places again, if only we could get the parking right. Metering of curb-side parking is the first step to getting it right — to ensure that parking spaces convenient to stores are typically available. Second, the sharing of private parking among multiple property owners can reduce the count of needed parking spaces. And third, developers should not be required to provide excess parking on-site “just in case.” We can even limit the allowed on-site parking (with parking maximums), although significant limits can undercut development, as a lack of parking would slow the leasing of some properties. It turns out that public parking lots and garages can offer advantages relative to private on-site parking.

People who have to walk to nearby public parking, instead of to a car that lives inside of their apartment building, in a downtown area, are more likely to walk to the train or store, or to travel by bike. On their way to the train, store, or public parking, they become the neighborhood’s vitality.

It is also easier to design properties for people when less space is needed for the movement and storage of cars. At public parking lots or garages, customers park once, and walk from store to store, instead of driving from private parking space to private parking space. Sometime, in a future that makes parking obsolete, public parking can get redeveloped.

Of course, we need to be cautious not to build or maintain excessive public parking as well. The building of new public parking only makes sense where significant new development (with very limited on-site parking) is allowed and expected.

Many people will argue that ample on-site parking is important for them. But a big reason why we have a housing shortage is parking – the most common concern raised at hearings about proposed housing is traffic. Less convenient parking access to properties, for drivers, is a necessary tradeoff so that more people can have shelter, and so we can all enjoy pedestrian-friendly places.

Some zoning bylaws and ordinances allow for developers to contribute fees to a fund for public parking, in lieu of on-site provision. Marlboro, which already has multiple structures for public parking, with spare capacity, is a good example.

Quincy’s planners have been forward thinking in going retro, building a new parking garage in its downtown, which is a 10-minute Red-Line ride from downtown Boston. Right next door to the garage, Nova Residences just opened with 171 apartments, and not one parking space on the property. The developer of Nova says that rents in the building are $1,000 less than are typical for new construction in Greater Boston, and that the project would not have been possible if they had had to build parking on-site.

Many of Nova’s residents are car-less; they will not be leading a revival of double drive-thrus.


As an added bonus, here is an excerpt from The Golden Calf by I. Ilf and E. Petrov, published in 1928. The translation from Russian is mine:

“You need to love pedestrians.

Pedestrians make up the bigger part of mankind. It’s enough that they’re the better part. Pedestrians created the world. They built cities, erected multi-story buildings, made plumbing and faucets, paved streets and lit them with electric lamps. They spread culture across the world, invented book presses, thought of gun powder, threw bridges across rivers, figured out Egyptian hieroglyphics, introduced the use of safe razors, destroyed the slave trade, and established that from soy beans you can prepare 114 tasty and nutritious dishes.

 And when all of this was ready, when the native planet took on a relatively blessed form, then appeared the motorists.

Meet the Author

Amy Dain

Public policy research consultant, Dain Research, Newton
You should note that motorists were also invented by pedestrians. But motorists somehow immediately forgot about this. They started to crush gentle and smart pedestrians. Roads, invented by pedestrians, came under the power of motorists. Pavement became two times wider; sidewalks narrowed to the size of a tobacco role. And pedestrians started to press themselves fearfully against the walls of buildings.”

Amy Dain is a public policy researcher and consultant who recently wrote the report, “The State of Zoning for Multi-family Housing in Greater Boston.”