‘Paved Paradise’ explains why parking is both a local nuisance and a global blight

Overhead shot of a parking lot
In one of many sobering anecdotes contained in Henry Grabar’s “Paved Paradise,” “The Sims” video game cut back on parking lots because adhering to reality would have been too depressing.
(adamkaz/Getty Images/iStockphoto)


Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World

By Henry Grabar
Penguin Press: 368 pages, $30

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You might expect a book about parking to be a snore. I did. I’ve tried to read a few in the public library. Didn’t get far.

But I have news to report. Henry Grabar’s “Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World” is not a slog; it’s a romp, packed with tales of anger, violence, theft, lust, greed, political chicanery and transportation policy gone wrong. The protagonist — and the villain — is the car. The theme is our culture’s propensity to value automobile ownership over almost everything else, and at a heavy cost.

If you own a car, you’ve got to park it somewhere. If you live in or near a city — most of us do — the consequences are all around you. Everyone already knows how fundamentally the automobile has shaped our physical environment, the residents of Los Angeles County perhaps most of all. Roads and highways are only part of it.


“Paved Paradise” sensitized me to just how profoundly parking itself has contributed to the uglification of urban life, creating, as one of Grabar’s sources puts it, “a super-mundane environment that people just want to move through.” He notes a sad fact about “The Sims,” the popular reality-cloning video game, which tried to simulate the world as accurately as possible but had to cut back dramatically on the overwhelming presence of parking lots for its simulated city. The visual result would have been too grim.

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It’s not just looks, though; it’s money — money that could theoretically be used for other things. The pocketbook costs of parking are enormous, going far beyond the cash sucked up by meter and garage fees.

Look at housing. The cost of parking requirements for new real estate developments is in the billions, passed on in the form of higher payments for mortgage and rent. This contributes, Grabar contends, to a housing crisis that renders great swaths of vibrant American cities unaffordable to younger generations, with increasing numbers living in tent encampments on public sidewalks (and parking lots!) in what still counts as the world’s most prosperous nation.

'Paved Paradise,' by Henry Grabar
(Penguin Press)

Like many books that chronicle the deep problems that afflict humanity, “Paved Paradise” is better at explaining the magnitude of the crisis than providing workable solutions. Grabar tries. He’s clear about his bottom line: “Abolish parking [requirement] minimums and let developers build the amount of parking their clients want.”

Grabar, who writes the Metropolis column at Slate, is more storyteller than economist. That’s OK. He lays out the issue cleanly and clearly. His flair for writing will spur wider interest in the subject. Whether economic common sense can prevail over American car culture is yet to be determined.

The American attitude toward parking spaces predates the invention of the automobile. “The issue speaks to a basic principle of what it means to be an American,” a Boston city councilman tells Grabar. “Like the gold miner and the pioneers, residents have the right to stake their claims.”


Fans of “Seinfeld” still talk about the time George Costanza engages in a full-episode standoff for imagined rights to a curbside parking space in front of an apartment building in New York City. As I learned in “Paved Paradise,” it’s based on a true story — one that ended in serious violence.

That darker truth hidden beneath the mundane humor of workaday parking struggles becomes a pattern in the book.

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Commercial squatting on public curb space affects cities around the world, especially where parking enforcement is lax. Take New York City’s Ice Cream Truck Wars several years ago. Over a 10-year period, starting in 2009, six dozen soft-serve ice cream vehicles amassed 22,495 unpaid parking tickets, for a debt of $4.47 million. A complicated token system run by the city made it easy to transfer tokens and evade fines.

The enforcement came from truck owners who relied on thuggery to maintain their squatting rights. In one incident, a woman driver was spit on, and the windshield of the spitter’s truck was bashed in by a garden hoe. Mister Softee drivers began avoiding Midtown Manhattan, afraid of getting beaten up.

A man smiling in a gray t-shirt and blue blazer.
Henry Grabar’s “Paved Paradise” superbly diagnoses the blight of parking but offers only a few potential solutions.
(Lisa Larson-Walker)

To this former resident of Chicago, Grabar’s description of “Chicago dibs,” a post-snowstorm phenomenon in which residents claim public curb space as their own, is spot on. A near-infinite number of markers have been used to reserve the spot: “A piano bench, a wheelchair, a car door, two vacuum cleaners, a chair with a few complimentary beers, a fully set dining room table, and all manner of Nativity figurines, including a mannequin torso perched on a board between two cinderblocks with the message ‘the body of Christ compels you not to take my spot’ scrawled across the chest in Sharpie.”

Once again, however, comedy curdles into serious trouble. An entire chapter is devoted to Chicago’s disastrous sell-off of its municipal parking system to private equity, a key factor in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s decision not run for another term.

California, inevitably, figures heavily in “Paved Paradise.” The paradise line from the famous Joni Mitchell song “Big Yellow Taxi” that gives Grabar his title may have been inspired by Hawaii, but Los Angeles is its truest manifestation. In the 1920s, as those newfangled private motor cars gummed up traffic, street-side parking downtown was banned. The result: comfortably smooth traffic flow and a revenue decline for downtown merchants of 50%.

Keeping shoppers and white-collar employees downtown became an obsession of city leaders for decades. Parking requirements for new construction and low-cost curbside parking made the cityscape repellent and traffic worse, ironically pushing more development to the suburbs.

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In Grabar’s analysis — which jibes with the work of 1960s new urbanists like Jane Jacobs who fought for more affordable, more attractive, more walkable cities — the costs of parking have been subsidized too long.

Jacobs was one of the first to argue that more parking means more traffic and a dehumanization of city life. Grabar notes that cities which balked at increasing residential parking requirements — San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans — are among the country’s most walkable.


A freer-market approach, which separates the price of parking from other building costs, might provide a rare example of left and right coming together. Grabar quotes a developer who wants to build near mass transit, provide no parking and keep rents more affordable as a result. To those who complained he’d find too few tenants to accept the tradeoff, he said that should be his problem. If it didn’t work, he’d be the biggest loser.

Such experiments are being tried in California and other states; Grabar mentions several. It’s too early to draw conclusions on that approach. The COVID-19 pandemic rearranged work, travel and living patterns so fundamentally that new patterns are only beginning to emerge.

The book could have used more discussion of new technologies, such as apps that make parking spots easier to find, as well as San Francisco’s computer-based parking meter system, which dynamically changes prices as demand shifts.

Grabar’s discussion of autonomous vehicles as a partial solution to the problem — they don’t need to park, as they can operate 24/7 — buys too naively into Silicon Valley hype. The cars will be “parked” somewhere, even if they’re moving. If they’re not in driveways or parking garage, they’ll be choking traffic on the streets.

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More focus on economic stratification would have been welcome too. Cutting parking requirements might lower rents, but is mass transit as it exists adequate to the task? Post-COVID, can it be made to be? Will rents be reduced enough to make up for higher parking costs? Won’t increased gentrification be the result?

The problems are immense. The solutions remain unclear. Grabar says we are “so deep in the parking crater people can’t see beyond its edge.” His highly entertaining take on a serious subject will persuade more people to at least take a good look.