Roman Mars [00:00:02] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. If you have even a passing familiarity with Los Angeles, you’ve probably heard this before: “In LA, nobody walks.” LA is a city of drivers, a place that feels purpose built for cars. And to fit all those cars, you need a lot of parking.
Henry Grabar [00:00:25] It’s one of the greatest concentrations of parking in the world.
Roman Mars [00:00:27] That’s Henry Grabar, author of a new book called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.
Henry Grabar [00:00:33] I think in LA, parking has a special place in the mind because we think of LA as sort of an iconic place to drive with its famous freeways and its palm lined boulevards and all that. So, I think it’s a place where perhaps you get the highest level of contrast between the kind of utopian idea of driving and the dirty reality that is looking for a parking spot.
Roman Mars [00:00:56] In LA, that dirty reality plays out all the time on the local news.
Newscaster [00:01:02] Fists are flying in a South LA parking lot, in an apparent argument over a parking space…
Henry Grabar [00:01:07] The more spectacular ones tend to make the news. If there’s video and, you know, two guys fighting with baseball bats, and somebody runs the car into a storefront–that’s going to make the news. But I think a lot of run of the mill parking fights don’t.
Roman Mars [00:01:21] America has as many as eight parking spaces for every car. But despite all of this abundance, we are constantly fighting with each other about parking. And most of that fighting happens in rec center basements and city council chambers.
Henry Grabar [00:01:36] You see people fighting over parking in that context in, for example, community meetings, discussions about zoning, about parking requirements, about what gets built in their neighborhood because everybody is afraid of new residents encroaching on the parking stock. And that is a kind of parking fight as well and perhaps one that has more systemic consequences than two guys going at it with baseball bats.
Roman Mars [00:01:58] LA might be the most extreme parking city on the planet. Parking regulations have made it nearly impossible to build new affordable housing or to renovate old buildings. And parking has a massive impact on how the city looks. LA is chock full of commercial strip malls or buildings that are alone and isolated in a sea of asphalt. And all of this is the result of one policy decision, a policy that has reshaped American cities for the last 80 years. In the early 20th century, LA saw an influx of new residents–something the city wasn’t prepared for.
Mark Vallianatos [00:02:34] Well, especially in the 1920s–you know–the population of the city more than doubled in that decade. You had the most houses built of any time in LA’s history. And you also had a massive growth in car ownership. Southern California was the first place in the world with mass ownership of cars.
Roman Mars [00:02:53] That’s Mark Vallianatos. He works for the county public transit agency. But he’s also an expert on LA’s car culture.
Mark Vallianatos [00:03:00] I’m a rare parking weirdo, so I’m happy to talk about it.
Roman Mars [00:03:04] In the early 20th century, Los Angeles had the biggest public transit system in the world by mileage. Their streetcars and trolleys were well-loved. But thanks to mismanagement and a cultural shift towards driving and possibly a massive conspiracy by car companies, LA let its trains fall into disrepair, and they made a choice to become a city of motorists.
Mark Vallianatos [00:03:24] By 1920, you had one car per household, essentially. It was, like, ten to 12 times as many as, say, in Chicago at that time. And so therefore, you also had a whole bunch of people figuring out how humans could live with cars in a city, right? Garages and carports and just figuring out where to put the cars.
Roman Mars [00:03:44] The shift to becoming a car culture required a lot of changes to the urban landscape. California had to build highways to accommodate all this driving. Most parking in LA at the time was curbside. And as the population boomed, street parking became a rare commodity, which inspired panic at city hall.
Mark Vallianatos [00:04:02] There was an annual report of the board of LA City Planning Commissioners that talked about what they’d done the past year–their goals for the next year. And there was a picture of a sort of empty street that is just getting developed. There’s one apartment building on it. And it’s, like, a four-story masonry apartment building. And parked in front of it were about maybe 15 to 20 cars.
Roman Mars [00:04:24] City planners worried about the consequences if every new apartment building needed 15 to 20 curbside parking spaces. In 1931, LA introduced a policy that changed how urban planning works in the United States. They made a law requiring parking minimums for new residential buildings. For any new apartment with 20 or more units, there had to be one covered parking spot per unit. Here’s Henry Grabar.
Henry Grabar [00:04:50] These parking minimum laws would become virtually ubiquitous in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. But in LA at this time, I think you can understand the logic because they’re sitting there and they’re saying, “We are struggling to create as much parking as possible, both on the part of the city government, which is building public parking–like the massive Pershing Square parking garage–and also the private, you know, entrepreneurs and department store owners themselves who are saying, ‘Our survival depends upon finding parking.'”
Roman Mars [00:05:22] Well, this rule made a lot of sense for a city without mass public transportation. It also had some gnarly consequences. Suddenly, lots of apartment buildings in the city weren’t compliant with parking regulations, which was bad news for one of the city’s most popular building types, the bungalow court.
Mark Vallianatos [00:05:39] The classic, wonderful Southern California typology. If you think of two rows of either detached or attached, like, small homes on the sides of a long lot…
Roman Mars [00:05:49] The bungalow court is a lovely housing type. It was seen as a way for less affluent Angelenos to have a house and a shared private garden. But the courtyard created an issue. There was no space for the new mandatory parking. The bungalow courts weren’t alone. If developers wanted to build a two or three-story brick apartment building, they needed to buy the lot next door, too–just for the parking. People in LA saw the negative consequences of parking minimums pretty much right away.
Mark Vallianatos [00:06:16] Like, even in the early ’30s, the LA Times published an article that the parking requirements essentially made it so no multistory masonry buildings were being built anymore in LA. So very early on, you can see the consequences.
Roman Mars [00:06:28] But Los Angeles didn’t back off their parking laws. In fact, they were expanded in the 1940s because city leaders were facing a looming threat from the suburbs.
Henry Grabar [00:06:40] So, like most American cities in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, LA was subject to what planners at the time called “decentralization,” which is to say that there were all these booming suburbs on the outskirts of the city that offered residents from returning GIs coming back from war–or really anyone else who was white and was able to get a mortgage–the opportunity to go buy a single family home with a front yard, a two-car garage, and another couple parking spots on the curb in front of the house. And that was a very seductive vision for many Americans in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Downtown obviously was threatened by people moving out to the suburbs. And, you know, they wondered, “What can we do to stop ourselves from losing our population and our tax base and our jobs to these new suburban communities?”
Roman Mars [00:07:34] If the city wanted to compete with the growing suburbs, they needed to fight back against one of the biggest draws of suburban living–lots and lots of free parking. Soon, the city’s zoning rules included parking minimums for all types of housing. And then it was expanded to businesses, so everyone could have cheap and available street parking when shopping for shoes or getting a meal downtown.
Mark Vallianatos [00:07:56] The city’s postwar 1946 zoning code said “Now it’s extending to everything–industrial buildings, commercial buildings, single-family apartments…
Roman Mars [00:08:03] By the 1950s, downtown Los Angeles was in a parking spiral. The city required more and more parking, which actually incentivized more and more driving, which created a need for even more parking. And things got out of hand from there.
Henry Grabar [00:08:16] So over the years, as the parking problem in LA gets worse, they start ramping up the parking requirement. At first, it’s half a parking spot with every unit, then it’s one with every unit, then it’s two with every unit, and so on. And you can actually watch developers respond to this. And the kind of dominant form of, you know, your everyday residential architecture in Los Angeles evolves.
Roman Mars [00:08:37] Faced with higher parking requirements, builders in LA had to get creative, which led to one of LA’s most iconic housing styles, the dingbat. You probably heard us talking about dingbats on the show because dingbats are pretty fun, and the word dingbat is really fun to say.
Mark Vallianatos [00:08:52] They have two things that kind of set them apart. One is that the front is often kind of very highly decorated. The rest of it is very plain stucco. But the front often had, like, a tarmac style, like, you know, starbursts and really cool tiling.
Roman Mars [00:09:06] The other distinctive thing about dingbats was “tuck under parking.” Every dingbat apartment was cantilevered over a driveway so cars could be parked underneath the building itself. Not everybody loved them, in part because the underground parking took away a lot of sidewalk space. But for most residents, dingbats were considered a stylish way to conform with LA’s parking requirements. This was pretty much the most parking centric housing you could design. And yet, in 1965, the parking minimums went up again. Most units of housing required two units of parking. And even dingbats became obsolete.
Henry Grabar [00:09:44] Yeah, even the dingbat you couldn’t build anymore. And it’s true; when you see the dingbat, you think, “Wow. This is the form that has been developed for a society that’s dependent on the automobile, for sure.”
Roman Mars [00:09:55] Eventually, every small and medium residential building type became impossible to construct in downtown Los Angeles. The parking minimums created yet another type of housing architecture in the city. Many new apartment towers had several story parking garages at the base, and the apartments above were shaped by the needs of the garage below.
Henry Grabar [00:10:14] Yeah, I talked to some architects who were saying that the first thing you need to figure out is how many parking spaces you can get in there. You need to maximize your number of parking spaces so that you can maximize your number of units above. And to maximize that, you require placing these pillars at certain places in the parking garage, right? And then that’s the form of your building. It’s been determined by the placement of those pillars in the parking garage. And so that ends up shaping the design of the units above. And it’s sort of a neat allegory for how parking drives the design of other things in society.
Roman Mars [00:10:46] By the turn of the 21st century, there was a boom in these misshapen apartment towers with massive parking garages at the bottom because the parking math was so complicated for smaller building types.
Henry Grabar [00:10:59] So if you’re building a condo, for example, in Los Angeles in the 1990s, you need to include 2.25 to 2.5 covered, onsite parking spaces for every unit. So, let’s do the math on this, Roman. You’re a developer in a Los Angeles neighborhood. And you have a small parcel you inherited from your grandfather. And it’s a blank lot. And you’d like to put some housing on this lot–help to solve your city’s housing crisis. If you want to build five units, you are required to include five times 2.5–12.5–and then round up. 13 parking spaces. 13 parking spaces on an infill lot. You can’t fit those on the ground floor. So now you’re talking about a two-story garage–or potentially an extremely expensive underground excavation–just to put five condos on this lot. And five is not a large number; that’s the size of your average sort of infill brownstone on the Upper West Side. And suddenly that kind of construction becomes completely impossible because of both the geometry of putting those parking spaces on the small lot and also the cost because building parking is very expensive.
Roman Mars [00:12:09] But lousy new buildings weren’t the only consequence of parking requirements. Most of LA’s old buildings couldn’t be converted into something new.
Henry Grabar [00:12:17] There are some historic structures here that many people drive by, and they say, “Gosh, that would be just perfect for a little restaurant or a little coffee shop or what have you.” And then they realize that the building was built before 1950. It has no parking, or it has two or three parking spaces. And so, there’s a padlock around it–a metaphorical padlock. But to some extent, you know, renovating it and turning it into a new thing would require demolishing something adjacent in order to provide the parking.
Roman Mars [00:12:47] Mark Vallianatos says all this parking in LA is a big contributor to the city’s housing crisis. Because of parking minimums, new housing is very difficult to build, and many places that could be turned into housing are set aside for parking lots.
Mark Vallianatos [00:13:02] And the ultimate result of that is essentially we have 40,000 people homeless on the streets of Los Angeles because you made it impossible to provide homes for people, again, because we’re prioritizing space for automobiles.
Roman Mars [00:13:16] Parking minimums have led to all these problems that are really hard to unwind. And in LA, it can feel hard to eliminate parking since the city doesn’t offer many alternatives to driving. But recently, LA has taken steps to fight back against its parking culture. In 1999, the city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance or “ARO.” The law made it easier for developers to convert old office buildings into housing to get more people living downtown. Developers didn’t want to buy these buildings since they had the dreaded parking padlock on them. So, to make conversions more enticing for developers, the city did something kind of radical. It waived parking minimums for these conversion projects.
Henry Grabar [00:14:00] Right. So basically, you have these developers who start snatching up these buildings. And these buildings are, at this point, all but worthless. I mean, we’re talking about people buying 12-story buildings for hundreds of thousands of dollars. They’re super cheap because they have the parking padlock on the front door. They’re empty. And you can’t do anything with them. You can’t turn them into something new because they don’t have enough parking. And so, once the city gets rid of this obligation, developers start buying them, and they start turning them into new residential units just about immediately. So according to the landmark study of the ARO by a planning professor named Michael Manville, who is at UCLA–he went and interviewed all these developers, and he found that between 1999 and 2008–this is a basically ten-year period–developers use this ordinance to create 6,900 units in downtown LA. So almost 7,000 new apartments were built at this time. And the craziest thing is that the ARO created more housing in those ten years than had been built–period–in the previous 30. Part of what you feel in downtown LA is, like, a sense that it’s a real neighborhood now. It’s not just an office district. It closes at 5:00 p.m.
Roman Mars [00:15:17] 7,000 new housing units is impressive, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. A lot more has to be done. Recently, the state of California passed a law saying housing within a half mile of major public transit stops will not require parking on site. And this year, Los Angeles City Council is poised to change everything. In early May, City Council passed new zoning plans for downtown Los Angeles and Hollywood. The plans are designed to encourage more housing, and they include the elimination of parking minimums for all new residential developments. There has been some pushback from residents who worry about losing their parking spaces. But many urbanists are excited by the changes. It feels like we are in the final days of minimum parking requirements because LA isn’t the only city going down this path.
Henry Grabar [00:16:06] San Jose, Seattle, Portland, Austin, Texas. It’s all over the place. It heralds exciting things for the future of what’s going to happen with parking in architecture–or at least a more flexible world in which people who want to, for example, create low-income housing with no parking spots are able to do so. I think it does take some adjustment. But at the end of the day, I think people do recognize ultimately that housing for people is more important than parking for cars.
Roman Mars [00:16:41] Coming up, the incredible tale of how selling Chicago’s parking meters became a political blunder for the history books. After this. Whether you’re starting a new business or growing one, if you want to be successful, you need the most talented people on your team. I’m a big believer in this. That’s where ZipRecruiter comes in. And right now, you can try ZipRecruiter for free at ziprecruiter.com/99. Why should you let ZipRecruiter help you hire for your business? Well, ZipRecruiter’s powerful matching technology finds highly qualified candidates for a wide range of roles. If you got your eye on one or two people who would be perfect for your job, ZipRecruiter lets you send them a personal invite so they’re more likely to apply. ZipRecruiter also offers attention grabbing labels that speak to job flexibility, which you need these days, like “remote,” “training provided,” “urgent,” and more to really help your job stand out. Let ZipRecruiter fill all your roles with the right candidates. Four to five employers who post on ZipRecruiter get a quality candidate within the first day. See for yourself. Go to this exclusive web address to try ZipRecruiter for free. It’s ziprecruiter.com/99. Again, that ZipRecruiter.com/99. ZipRecruiter–the smartest way to hire. Did you know that most chairs are made to fit a default body type based on an imaginary 50th percentile male body? Poor posture from poor chairs is more than just an unhealthy work habit. It can lead to serious problems like herniated discs and lower back pain. But Path by Humanscale is built different. Path is a body inclusive chair designed to fit 95% of body types effortlessly with minimal controls and no adjustments required. It fits comfortably the moment you sit, using nothing more than pure physics. It’s also the world’s most sustainable office chair, certified climate positive, and composed of 53% recycled content, including a bunch of upcycled plastic. My Path chair is a very striking vapor color that just naturally fits in all the right ways, so I can sit comfortably through our three hour edit meetings. It also leans back really good. Few office chairs get the feel of that right. Humanscale is offering 99% Invisible listeners 20% off Path and all Humanscale products by using the code “invisible” at checkout. Head to humanscalepath.com and use code “invisible” at checkout. So, we’re back with Henry Grabar. A congratulations on the book. It is so good. I loved reading it. It’s easy breezy. It has some stuff I know–some stuff that was brand new to me. Why did you decide to focus on parking for the last two, five, six, seven years of your life?
Henry Grabar [00:19:31] Because I just love it so much, Roman. I can’t get enough of it. The truth is that I am a journalist. I write about cities, and so I write about urban subjects like housing and transportation and flooding and infrastructure. And in subject after subject and in story after story, this thing kept coming up. And this thing was this, like, vast system of parking that we’ve established but that no one really understands and that exerts all these, like, hidden consequences on the way that all these other city systems work. It can be something as basic as, “Why do we not have bus rapid transit? Like, why do buses get stuck in traffic and they have to run behind all these cars?” And the answer is often just because the city is unwilling to mess with the street parking, right? I also just think it’s interesting. I mean, I know there’s a joke that’s like, “Parking? That’s so boring.” And I’ve definitely heard people say, like, “Oh, wow. Parking. Fun.” But then you get them talking about it. And it turns out that, like, everybody’s got an opinion.
Roman Mars [00:20:30] So one of the stories in your book that I knew a little bit about–but that I didn’t know the full story of until I read it–is the debacle of the privatization of parking meters in Chicago. So, could you just tell me that story and how that all got started?
Henry Grabar [00:20:44] Yeah. So, when I was writing this book, I was living in Chicago. And as anybody who lives in Chicago knows, Chicago has pretty high parking meter rates on some of its busy commercial corridors. And the reason that Chicago has such high parking meter rates on its busy commercial corridors is because all the parking meters in the city were leased to a group of Wall Street investors in 2008. And so, Chicago’s parking meters are now run basically by Wall Street. And as a result, they’re really expensive, and they make people really mad all the time.
Roman Mars [00:21:16] So how did that happen? How did this sort of public resource where the city makes a good kind of living one quarter at a time through charging for parking and probably not charging enough became something that Morgan Stanley owned and monopolizes?
Henry Grabar [00:21:32] Yeah. So, in 2008, the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, is obsessed with selling off some of the city’s public resources. And he’s got this idea that the future of municipal government is in finding private operators who will pay the city for the privilege of running these public services and do it better than the city used to do it. And the city will get more money. And everybody wins. And 2008–the recession is bearing down, the stock market is tanking, everybody’s starting to panic about the municipal budget, and Daley gets this offer from Morgan Stanley. And Morgan Stanley wants to rent Chicago’s parking meters–all 36,000 parking meters–for the next 75 years. And the bank is going to offer Chicago a flat payment of $1.1 billion. And I think Daley looks at that, and he says, “Wow!” Dollar signs light up in his eyes. And he says, “A billion dollars? Are you kidding me? Yes.” It’s Chicago, right? Like, the mayor says he’s got this great deal. The city council basically gets browbeaten into accepting it without even, like, reading the contract. And by 2009, Chicago has sold all of its parking meters away for the next 75 years.
Roman Mars [00:22:43] So are Chicago parking meters really that valuable? Because for a long time they were very affordable. Like, why did the city keep them so low?
Henry Grabar [00:22:52] I think part of the problem is that raising parking meter rates is very unpopular. And so, Chicago was not alone in that it had basically neglected to raise parking meter rates for decades–to the extent that, like, they ceased to be useful as a way of actually managing street space, which is the kind of original purpose of the parking meter. Sidebar–the original purpose of the parking meter is not to, like, wring money out of taxpayers, right? You can just raise taxes if that’s what you want to do. The point of the parking meter is to manage the scarce resource we have, which is, like, the curb–the vital access point to all the property on a busy street. And a parking meter is a way to manage that. It’s a way to make sure that that’s not monopolized all day by somebody who’s just leaving their car there for days at a time. And in Chicago, the parking meter had long ceased to have this function, right? They’d gotten super cheap. They hadn’t raised the rates in decades. And in fact, they were collecting somewhere between five and ten times more in parking tickets than they were from the actual meters themselves. And that’s actually typical of most American cities; more money comes from parking punishment than from actually the parking meters themselves. And that to me seems like a system that’s very poorly designed and working backwards. And when the time came and they received this offer for the parking meters, I don’t think anybody really had a sense of how high the price could go. Now, of course, that was implicit in Morgan Stanley’s offer, right? Like, there’s no mystery how they were going to crunch a billion dollars out of these parking meters. Obviously, they were going to raise the parking meter rates. But the city argued that, politically speaking, they didn’t have the political capacity to raise that money themselves. It could only happen if they relinquished control to this group of private investors for 75 years. That’s the only way those parking meter rates could get that high.
Roman Mars [00:24:37] How bad of a deal was this, and how quickly did people figure it out?
Henry Grabar [00:24:41] It became apparent pretty quickly that this was a bad deal. In 2009, six months after this deal gets signed, the inspector general of Chicago drops a report. The inspector general–this guy’s name is David Hoffman–finds that the parking meters were worth between two and three and a half billion dollars. And remember, Chicago had gotten paid $1 billion for them. So basically, they had left a billion dollars on the table at minimum. And it’s not surprising because it was a very opaque bidding process. Yes, they tested the market, and they found the best buyer they could. But there were only a couple of bidders. And no surprise because, like, how robust is the market for a 75-year lease of 36,000 parking meters? It’s not like buying a gallon of milk. It’s very untested. And so, not surprisingly, Chicago worked really fast, and they wound up with a very, very bad deal. And even worse than it appears because not only did they realize pretty soon after, like, “Wow, if we had raised our parking meter rates, we could have made this money for the city.” And in fact, the investors who bought the parking meters have since made their money back. And this is, what, like, 15 years later now? There are 60 years left on the deal, and they have already made all their money back. Insult to injury, right? Not only were the parking meters more expensive, but instead of this revenue being used to fund city improvements, clean the streets, build public infrastructure, plant trees, pay for schools, whatever, all this money was going to Wall Street investors. And that, I think, is very painful. Every time you pay for parking on a Chicago street, you just feel like you’re throwing money down the drain. And that’s annoying. And then the other thing about it that became apparent in the years afterwards was they hadn’t just sold the parking meters. But because the parking meters are tied to the use of that street as parking, you couldn’t change the function of the streets. And so, if you wanted to build a bike lane or a bus lane that was going to take away hundreds of street parking spots, you had to find a way to compensate Morgan Stanley for all those disappeared parking spots. Put meters in somewhere else, and the meters there somewhere else had to be just as good as the meters that went away. And Chicago found itself in all this hot water where pretty soon they were paying Morgan Stanley money. And so, Morgan Stanley started charging Chicago. And Chicago was forking over tens of millions of dollars every year to this company for problems with the meters. Every time they wanted to hold a ticker tape parade–if the Cubs win the World Series–every time they want to have a farmer’s market or close the street, this becomes, like, a major drag on the types of things that the city is able to do and continues to be so. And I think as Chicago begins to think about how they’re going to provide electric vehicle charging at the curb, it’s going to be a real problem for them–that they do not have control over 36,000 of their best curb parking spaces.
Roman Mars [00:27:25] Wow. Well, Henry, the book is so good. And I enjoyed talking with you. And I know people who listen to this show are going to just love the hell out of it. So, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Henry Grabar [00:27:35] Thanks for having me, Roman.
Roman Mars [00:27:41] Henry Grabar’s book is called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. You can find it in bookstores now. 99% Invisible was produced this week by Chris Berube. Original music by Swan Real. Sound mix by Martín Gonzalez. Delaney Hall is our Senior Editor. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. The rest of the team includes Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Martín Gonzalez, Christopher Johnson, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Jeyca Maldonado Medina, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. Special thanks this week to Carol Schatz. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM podcast family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora Building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at 99pi.org.