Toward a “Parking-Lite” City

In recent years, a transportation revolution has been quietly brewing in Los Angeles—the city known above all others for its love affair with the private automobile, and the way of life that accompanies it.

With startling speed, Uber, Lyft, and a host of similar platforms have been spearheading a dramatic shift in the way people move around town.

Talk to Nik Karalis about Toward a “Parking-Lite” City

Increasing numbers of millennials now rely almost exclusively on ride-hailing, as do many adolescents and the elderly, once restricted in their ability to travel independently. It has already transformed the city’s nightlife, and is now doing the same to its tourist industry (in recent years the once-crowded car-rental halls at LAX have often grown eerily quiet, as visitors overwhelmingly choose the convenience of ride-hailing over a hired automobile).

And it’s not just Uber and Lyft. Crossing overhead, traveling underground, and running alongside roads, a sprawling new metro system—the largest built in America in eighty years—continues to expand across the region, and, despite its real or perceived limitations, is spurring a wave of transit-oriented development near its stations. On the West Side, fleets of electric scooters zip thousands of people around the streets—and sometimes sidewalks—accompanied by increasing numbers of bikes and e-bikes. Sooner or later, of course, a new breed of self-driving vehicles will start to appear, picking up and dropping off passengers by themselves—and changing everything.

Hailing an Uber, riding a Lime scooter, taking the Metro, and using an autonomous vehicle may seem at first like very different experiences. (And they certainly have different impacts on the city’s perennial traffic problem, as some take people off the freeways, thus easing congestion, and others do not.) But all of them share one thing in common—something that, for Los Angeles and its future, is crucial. There is no need to park a car.

Typical parking lot in Downtown Los Angeles

It is difficult to overstate the importance of parking to Los Angeles.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of parking to Los Angeles. Though the significance of the automobile to Southern California, at least in the popular imagination, is usually attached to its freeways—where else would the memorable opening number of a Hollywood musical take place on a traffic-jammed overpass?—it is actually the need to store the car, once it has arrived at its destination, that has truly defined the shape of the modern city. Indeed, as the NPR host Frances Anderton has observed, “In Los Angeles, parking drives everything.”

To anyone who spends time in Los Angeles, the evidence is obvious: in the endless parking lots along the region’s streets and boulevards, and in the parking structures—below or above ground—that accompany almost every residential, commercial, or retail building. But there is another side to Anderton’s dictum. Those countless structures and vast acreage of lots are the product not only of actual demand, but as much—or more—of the highly restrictive, city-mandated parking minimums (about two spaces per residential unit, and one space for every hundred square feet of commercial use) that have been in force since World War II. In practice, these requirements mean that parking takes up half as much space—and frequently more than half—as the activity it is serving. More than any other single factor, these strict rules have defined the physical form of the city, firmly determining what can—and, more to the point, what cannot—be built.

What if parking spaces could be reimagined to building communities?

But what happens now, as the revolution in mobility continues inexorably to unfold, and the need for parking declines? How could those miles of existing surface parking could be unlocked for more productive urban uses? And what if required parking minimums for new developments could be sharply reduced, or in some cases eliminated altogether? What kind of new projects, and new city, could be imagined?rnrnAs part of a recent study for the LA CoMotion conference—an annual gathering of worldwide experts on the future of mobility, held every November in Los Angeles’ Arts District—we and our colleagues explored these very questions, and came up with some startling answers.

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