Parking Crisis: But Not As You Might Think

Parking! A favorite topic for people who like to complain about their driving experiences. And the main theme here is about the lack of parking spaces. A parking space not too far from the destination, and of course for free. That’s the ideal parking space. And in general there are way to few of them. That’s what we may believe.

A new study by the data scientist Eric Scharnhorst from the Research Institute for Housing America paid by the Mortgage Bankers Association paints a very different picture. Cities are not suffering from a lack of parking spaces but from too many. And the numbers are surprising.

Scharnhorst tallied parking spaces in five American cities, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, Des Moines and Jackson, by analyzing satellite images and tax documents and counting surface parking on streets and lots, as well as garages.

Surfacing parking in Philadelphia (left) and Seattle (right), multispectral imagery from satellites

In Des Moines in Iowa he realized that the 83,141 housing units are complimented by 1,6 million parking spaces, a factor of 19. Seattle has a factor of 8, Philadelphia a factor of 3,7. But Jackson beats everyone with a factor of 27 parking spaces per housing unit. Only New York has more housing units than parking spaces, with 1.85 million.

City Units Parking Factor Value per Household [$] Total Value [Mio $]
Jackson 3,694 100,119 27.1 192,138 711
Des Moines 84,045




Seattle 306,979


5.2 117.,677 35,790
Philadelphia 587,269


3.7 29.,974 17,460
New York City 3,275,628





If you tally the value of all parking spaces than Seattle’s 1.6 million spaces have a total value of 35.6 billion dollars, accounting 118,000 dollars per house hold. New York’s parking spaces have a total value of 20.6 billion dollars.

Other studies have pointed out that for every car in the US there are four parking spaces. With average prices for parking spaces ranging between 20,000 to 30,000 dollars, the total value of all parking spaces surpasses the value of all cars on the road.

Despite all the parking spaces many garages have a large percentage of empty lots, even in busy hours. Even the most populated garages have 40% of available spaces. In Des Moines public garages have occupancy rates of only 8 percent. In Seattle that number comes to 43 percent, only New York has full occupancy, but this only at the cheapest garages.

Those parking spaces are located in top downtown locations.  A large share of valuable real estate is reserved for cars that are not even using it.

The reason for those huge numbers of parking spaces is due to local building codes requiring a certain number of parking spaces per housing or office unit, without evaluating the availability of parking spaces in the neighborhood. And then mortgage lenders as well require the projects to have a certain ratio of housing units versus parking spaces, otherwise the lender would not sign the loan.

Generous building codes that require many parking spaces have the pervert effect that the distance between areas of interests grow, because of the number of parking spaces and garages between them, which then forces people to drive even more with their cars, leading to more parking needs.

The more parking spaces are required, the farther the distances grow, the more people use cars, the more parking spaces are required. A vicious cycle.

The fact that this study confirmed the results a series of other studies (with more studies planned for other cities), and that this very study was supported by the mortgage industry, lets us hope for some rethinking going on in the industry.

This article has also been published in German.


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