18.6 Million Spaces and Still Rising: Study Puts L.A. Parking in Perspective

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Over the last hundred years, L.A. County’s overall total parking spaces have grown to 18.6 million. Chart from the article Parking Infrastructure: A Constraint on or Opportunity for Urban Redevelopment? A Study of Los Angeles County Parking Supply and Growth, Journal of the American Planning Association.

There is a fascinating new L.A. County parking study making the rounds. Metro’s The Source summarizes it stating, “Look around and there’s an awful lot of space devoted to parking and a lot of it is under-used a lot of the time.” Curbed incorporates GIFs showing the inexorable growth of L.A. parking, and leads with the statistic that parking constitutes 14 percent of incorporated L.A. land.

The pay-walled article is Parking Infrastructure: A Constraint on or Opportunity for Urban Redevelopment? A Study of Los Angeles County Parking Supply and Growth. It is by Mikhail Chester, Andrew Fraser, Juan Matute, Carolyn Flower, and Ram Pendyala, published in the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Broadly the article surveys the growth of L.A. parking during the past hundred years, outlining how and why it has grown and what effects this has had. Then the article concludes with a set of recommendations.

The Extent of L.A. County Parking

For L.A. County as of 2010, the authors estimate that there are 18.6 million parking spaces. These break down into 3.6 million on-street, and 15 million off-street, with about a third of the off-street spaces being residential. L.A. parking covers an estimated 200 square miles, about 14% of the incorporated L.A. County land. This area is 1.4 times larger than the 140 square miles devoted to streets and freeways.

There are more than three times the number of parking spaces than there are vehicles. 18.6 million breaks down to 3.3 spaces for each of the 5.6 million vehicles in L.A. County.

From the article:

In the first half of the 20th century, L.A. County minimum parking requirements resulted in more parking being deployed than there were vehicles, but the growth in vehicles since 1960 has outpaced that of parking; by 1975, the number of vehicles in the county was about equal to the number of residential off-street spaces. This ratio has hovered around unity since, signifying that minimum off-street requirements have been a success at keeping vehicles off the road, but have likely contributed to more vehicles and ultimately more VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled].

There is abundant parking where high-quality transit exists, which is likely to work against transit, walking, and biking. Since 1950, most growth in parking infrastructure has occurred outside of the urban core, largely associated with lower-density residential and commercial development. In 2010, the coverage factor (the ratio of parking area to land area) was 0.16, more than double that of 1950.

Our findings suggest that minimum off-street parking requirements have been a success at encouraging greater automobility and probably a failure at lowering traffic congestion, one of the original objectives of such requirements.

Recommendations for the Future

Since the 1930s, cities have mandated expensive and excessive suburban off-street parking. These requirements are a primary cause of parking proliferation, so the authors recommend municipalities “develop new approaches to parking mandates including adopting maximum parking restrictions, and seek to accommodate new growth through redevelopment at the core rather than new construction at the periphery.”

The authors sound a cautionary note, though, citing limitations on how far reforming (eliminating or reducing) parking requirements will go – “current parking infrastructure may substantially reduce the positive impacts of even major municipal parking reforms.” With 14 percent of L.A. County already relegated to parking, “existing parking infrastructure is likely to work against policy initiatives to curb the use of the car, reduce auto congestion, increase transit usage, and address equity issues, even if minimum parking requirements on development are reduced or reformed.” 

Shoupistas are likely aware of the pseudo-science of off-street minimum parking requirements, a subject critiqued at great length in Don Shoup’s book The High Cost of Free Parking. Nonetheless, the article authors critique parking requirements for hampering affordability:

[M]andatory parking requirements drive up the cost of housing, suggesting that planners consider the implications for affordable housing. For example, an advocacy group estimates that New York City’s plan to change zoning regulations to allow fewer parking spaces for senior housing in transit zones will save $1 million for every 100-unit building, the cost of 25 parking spaces.

All L.A. County neighborhoods are not equal, so the authors recommend “well-discussed policy paradigms” to focus parking reform along transit lines.

For example, cities should reassess mandatory parking requirements in high-density areas with good public transit service to act as a deterrent to automobile use and an incentive to transit use. In L.A. County, jurisdictions along the existing and proposed rail lines should seriously consider changing their parking mandates to support the rail system. [With rail expansion] there are efforts to locate new housing and jobs near high-quality public transit. Cities in these areas should reduce the mandatory requirements for redevelopment projects along the lines or set maximum requirements.

The article further recommends that “planners must also focus on how [existing] parking infrastructure can be transitioned to alternative land uses.” Parking “can be converted to housing, small business incubators, industrial and commercial use, and recreational facilities.”

While it may be fairly straightforward to develop surface parking into buildings, the authors go beyond lots:

[R]esidential parking, specifically home garages, also have a high potential for conversion into living quarters and rental units as well as small home-based businesses. L.A. County residents have already taken advantage of their mandated garages and off-street parking to do so. In 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported that in Compton, a largely African American and Latino city of 93,000 in L.A. County, more than one-third of garages had been converted to living spaces, although officials continually threatened to crack down on the practice.

The owners of apartment buildings have also subdivided existing apartments into smaller units without the mandated parking. In June 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that City of Los Angeles officials were proposing a citywide amnesty process for landlords that would legalize their existing “bootlegged” apartments after years of debate about the practice. The Times reported, however, that the barriers to legalizing these apartments were not safety or construction issues, but “the city codes that mandate a minimum number of parking spaces.” The amnesty plan was not met with universal approval; the Times reported that some neighborhood associations were vehemently opposed, noting that many areas already faced “vociferous parking disputes.”

Those vociferous debates are likely to continue as Los Angeles County cities attempt to re-examine and reform parking, to make parking serve today’s Los Angeles.

  • Chewie

    Good study! The problem is people complain about urban parking conditions like parking being hard to find or not being free. These complaints are the political fuel of car-oriented zoning. Legalizing garage conversions and/or allowing guest quarters is a potentially game-changing idea that would do a lot to address the affordable housing crisis.

  • chairs missing

    Insane… just imagine how much housing, or parks, or small businesses that space could be used for.

  • Well considering that there are still large swaths of completely open land all over LA County, there’s not exactly a shortage of places to build.

  • Asher Of LA

    What’s the actual percentage is when you subtract uninhabited land (like state parks and such). 25%?

    Great study!

  • Joe Linton

    The study only includes developed land. When you include uninhabited land, then the 14% goes down.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Perhaps another way of looking at it would be…
    “Imagine how much disappearing open space could be preserved.”

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Of course, the issue in all discussions of land use is not how much land is available – if every single person in the United States had her own private acre of pavement (so each household had several acres!), that would be about 300 million acres, or about half a million square miles, which would fill up California, Nevada, Arizona, and part of New Mexico, and leave the rest of the nation as wilderness.

    Rather, the issue in land use is *which* land is available. The completely open land scattered throughout LA County is mostly in areas that are either on mountains, or far from residences and businesses, and thus not terribly usable for productive purposes. But lots of the parking is concentrated in areas of dense activity. Putting more housing, businesses, and parks in the existing parking structures would be *far* more valuable than building an equivalent amount of housing, business, and parks in the remote outlying areas of undeveloped land.

    There’s no shortage of places that one could hypothetically build. There’s a shortage of places where it’s *worth* building. And parking occupies a lot of those spaces, pushing up the price of the other spaces.

  • If people were worried about open space disappearing, they’d be paying more attention to the Inland Empire.

  • There’s plenty land that’s not wilderness, including empty lots scattered all over the LA Basin, to say nothing of the Antelope Valley that’s practically empty in comparison. A decent amount of the parking, especially closer into cities, is contained in structures or facilities that are underneath/on top of other buildings. Certainly, those aren’t all the parking, but they also aren’t exactly the same as pure paved over lots. If the study didn’t differentiate that type of parking out, it’s not exactly fair to say that it takes up 13% of land area because it isn’t.

  • That makes it a little clearer.

  • Jefftown37

    “[R]esidential parking, specifically home garages, also have a high potential for conversion into living quarters and rental units as well as small home-based businesses.”

    Yes, but the situation is important.

    Garage conversion is indeed an opportunity for both homeowners to get rental income and increasing the pool of rental units. But the conversion should be formally sanctioned through the development ordinance to ensure the accessory unit is built to code, safe, and comfortable.

    Another caveat. I live in a neighborhood where many of the homes are rented by college students. In some cases, they have converted the garage to additional space (e.g. game room). But it’s not like the students don’t have cars. They just park them on-street for free. The street’s now a jumbled, glorified parking lot. Cars get parked on corners, blocking driveways, or in driveways blocking the sidewalk. One answer would be a residential parking district, but that requires buy-in from the very people who would likely have no interest in one.

  • Jason

    Recently, I got to directly experience that one of the tallest buildings in Santa Monica is the parking structure on 2nd and Broadway. Pretty sad that some of the best unobstructed views of Santa Monica from within Santa Monica are from a fucking parking lot—tall apartment buildings are EVIL according to the NIMBYs, but more parking is apparently a clear public good.

  • Eric

    Well the great thing about garage conversions is that if you, personally, need that garage space to store your car, you’re under no obligation to convert it to anything else.

  • Jefftown37

    Well, I’m more referring to people who want to have their cake and eat it, too: not wanting to use their garage for their car, but still using public space to store it for free.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Exactly. Or many other sprawly areas.

  • chairs missing

    I actually kinda like the scale of downtown Santa Monica as it is (minus the glut of parking though.) I just wish it would spread a bit further out from the downtown… maybe across the freeway down Lincoln with more 3-4 story mixed use projects mixed into the residential only neighborhoods, so residents have more corner stores and cafes on their block.

    The bigger problem seems to be jobs/housing imbalance — as far as problems go, that’s a relatively good one for a city to have (since it can be solved over time through the zoning code.)

  • Oswald Kay Chisala

    How is parking such a nightmare with all these spaces in LA to set your car down? Is it really that hard for drivers to find an open space? Will we ever have enough spaces to park? Is this whole parking thing an exaggeration? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

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