Op-Ed: Los Angeles is a city of parking lots. It doesn’t have to be

A city parking lot on March 7.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

In recent years, Los Angeles residents have gained all kinds of new transportation options that are reshaping the way people navigate the city. Bike lanes, bike shares and e-scooters have fueled a distinct uptick in two-wheeled travel; more rail and rapid bus lines are under construction to lure commuting suburbanites out of their cars; and rides from Lyft and Uber are never more than a few minutes away.

These transportation choices have something in common: They don’t require parking a car.

It is difficult to overstate how the need for parking has shaped Los Angeles. For most of the last century, the city has required parking for virtually every project it approves, with minimums of about two spaces per residential unit, and one space for every hundred square feet of commercial use. In practice, these requirements mean that parking often takes up half as much space as the development it is serving. Perhaps more than any other single factor, these strict rules have defined the physical form of the city, with sprawling asphalt parking lots and concrete garages taking up acres of prime real estate, not only in the downtown core but throughout Los Angeles.

25.4 square miles of L.A.’s metropolitan core is occupied by open parking lots — an area larger than all of Manhattan.


So, what happens now as the revolution in mobility continues, and the need for parking declines? How might we better use those miles of existing surface parking? And what if required parking minimums for new developments could be sharply reduced, or in some cases eliminated altogether?

As part of a recent study for the LA CoMotion conference held every November in Los Angeles, we explored these questions, and came up with some startling answers.

Our first task was to measure just how much of today’s city has been turned over to parking. A detailed mapping study found that 25.4 square miles of L.A.’s metropolitan core is occupied by open parking lots — an area larger than all of Manhattan. And that figure doesn’t include space devoted to parking in structures, along curbs and at industrial facilities.

Our next step was to analyze how that immense sea of parking might be repurposed for other, more economically and socially valuable activities.

We found that the L.A. Basin could accommodate 750,000 new inhabitants if just half its existing parking lots were developed for residential use. That growth, which might include a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, could be achieved at the prevailing densities and building heights of surrounding areas.

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Our final step was to explore what a reduction in parking requirements would mean for new development. This is actually an experiment already in progress, with impressive results. A dozen years ago, the city eliminated parking requirements for historic office buildings converted to apartments, helping to fuel the transformation of downtown Los Angeles into one of the most exciting mixed-use districts in the country. The success of that initiative has prompted a proposal, now under city review, to extend the same reduction in parking requirements to the area’s new projects.

And what if similar reductions were applied to residential neighborhoods as well? One possible result explored by our study could be a reimagining, in contemporary terms, of some of the city’s most beloved and iconic development models, such as the courtyard projects of the 1920s and ’30s, in which modestly sized units enclosed a central landscaped open space. These classic Los Angeles dwellings have been more or less impossible to build for the last 70 years, largely due to parking requirements. While they are no higher than two or three stories, and thus able to sit comfortably within the scale of a low-rise district, courtyard developments can achieve densities three or four times that of single-family houses, promoting a more transit-friendly and environmentally sustainable way of life.

From the parking spaces of Los Angeles, in other words, a more welcoming and equitable city could rise, one with abundant housing in the places people work. In the last century, Los Angeles pioneered a car-oriented metropolis that was emulated across the country; now, perhaps, it can help point the way to a very different future for the world’s cities.

Nik Karalis is the chief executive officer of the global architecture studio Woods Bagot. James Sanders, Woods Bagot’s Design Council chair, is an architect and author who co-wrote the Emmy Award-winning PBS series, “New York: A Documentary Film.”