This story originally appeared in The Guardian and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
They are gray and rectangular, and if you laid all 2 billion of them together they would cover an area roughly the size Connecticut, about 5,500 square miles. Parking lots have a monotonous ubiquity in US life, but a growing band of cities and states are now refusing to force more on people, arguing that they harm communities and inflame the climate crisis.
For many years, local governments have required the construction of parking lots as part of any development. These measures, along with expansive highways that cut through largely minority neighborhoods and endless suburban sprawl, have cemented cars as the default transportation option for most Americans.
Starting in January, though, California will become the first US state to enact a ban on parking minimums, halting their use in areas with public transport in a move that Governor Gavin Newsom called a “win-win” for reducing planet-heating emissions from cars, as well as helping alleviate the lack of affordable housing in a state that has lagged in building new dwellings.
Several cities across the country are now rushing doing the same, with Anchorage, Alaska; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Nashville, Tennessee, all recently loosening or scrapping requirements for developers to build new parking lots. “These parking minimums have helped kill cities,” said Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School who accused political leaders of making downtowns “look like bombs hit them” by filling them with parking lots.
“Getting rid of parking minimums is an amazing step. It’s a piece in the puzzle of climate policy,” said Wagner, who pointed out that transportation is the largest source of planet-heating emissions in the US. “There’s a major rethink going on now, which is good for cities and for families.”
Climate campaigners and public transportation advocates have seized upon the previously esoteric issue of parking minimums, posting aerial pictures on social media demonstrating the vast swathes of prime urban land given over to parking lots and pushing city councils to foster denser communities with more opportunities to walk, cycle, or catch buses and trains rather than simply drive.
Cities such as Buffalo, New York; and Fayetteville, Arkansas, scaled back parking minimums a few years ago and have reported a surge in activity to transform previously derelict buildings into shops, apartments, and restaurants. Developers previously saw such work as unviable due to the requirement to build plots for car parking, in many cases several times larger than the building itself.
Nashville is among a new wave of cities hoping to do the same. “It’s about the climate, it’s about walkability, it’s reducing traffic and the need for everyone to have a car,” said Angie Henderson, a member of the Nashville Metropolitan Council, who proposed the parking change for the city’s core area.
Henderson said she was struck by how a dental practice in her district was forced to construct a parking lot for 45 cars, requiring the clearing of trees from a nearby hillside, despite only having space for a handful of patients.