Powerful Parking Maps

Parking lot maps might seem an unlikely viral hit but the Parking Reform Network's maps of downtown parking across the USA really did make a splash this northern Spring. 

The maps were created by Thomas Carpenito and a team of PRN volunteers. If you want to help, please join PRN!

They convey a compelling message, with many downtowns having more than 20 percent of their land devoted to parking. That's without even counting podium, underground or street parking.

To discuss the PRN Parking Lot Map project, I spoke with Thomas along with PRN President, Tony Jordan, and PRN Communications Coordinator, Etienne Lefebvre. Our conversation is this month's Reinventing Parking episode.

Listen with the player below. Or scroll down for a lightly edited transcript.

Or subscribe to the audio podcast. This is the official podcast of the Parking Reform Network.

What is the Parking Lot Maps project all about? [01:20]

A screenshot of the parking lot map. Featured is the city of Columbus, OH which has a LOT of parking lots in the central city. for a population of 905K 27% of the central city is devoted to car parking.

Paul Barter: Tom, in a nutshell, what are these downtown parking lot maps all about?

Thomas Carpenito: It's a visualization resource that we've developed to show all the land that's devoted to parking in the most valuable parts of our cities, our downtowns, our financial districts, our city centers.

This includes surface lots and garages but not anything like underground or podium parking that has more than one use. So this is all land that's really just being devoted to only one thing.

Paul: Okay, so there's a rationale there. It's the land that's 100% devoted to parking and it's the off street parking. The on street parking is not included. Is that right?

Thomas: Yes, correct.

Paul: And how many cities are included so far?

Thomas: We have around 50 right now and we're planning to add another 20 in the next week or two. So we're going to have all cities over 300,000. All the major cities in the United States.

Paul: Any plans to go beyond the United States?

Thomas: I need a super volunteer from Canada or other country that's willing to spearhead this.

But there are just so many cities in the United States that are really bad for this sort of land use, so we thought best to highlight the US first.

Paul: For various reasons, you've zeroed in on central city areas or downtowns. Could talk a little bit more about that.

Thomas: Sure, so the biggest bang for your buck with parking reform is going to be transit rich and walkable neighborhoods. So that's the area we want to focus on. Such areas that have upwards of 20 to 30% of their land devoted to parking have a really easy resource that they should be utilizing. That's what we're trying to point out here.

Paul: This is a lot of work to generate these maps. To some extent there's some automation, but you need to check. This is not a trivial task, right?

Thomas: Yeah, exactly. It's a lot of work. We're seeing that all the cities that have low metro area populations, such as Wichita, Kansas or Greensboro, North Carolina, really don't have any parking mapped in OpenStreetMap. So we're doing this all by hand for those lesser known cities.

Paul: You alluded there that there's a resource behind the scenes, the data in OpenStreetMap, and you need that to be reasonably robust to make a start.

Thomas: It certainly helps. When it's not complete or we don't have that resource, it takes a long time. So to add the original 50 cities took a few months. Now to add the remaining 20 smaller metro areas of 300,000 and up is taking a much longer time. It's definitely more difficult without OpenStreetMap.

How did the parking lot maps project come about and how did it become a PRN project? [04:36]

Paul: What gave you the idea to do this, Tom?

Thomas: I came up with the idea because there's no resource really to measure how much of our land is devoted to parking. Tony says this often, that cities don't even know how much parking they actually have. So, if we want to really communicate that parking is an issue for walkability, housing, and, urban issues, it really helps to have those numbers on it.

Paul: Over the years, people have done this in an ad hoc way, haven't they? In 2017, I think it was Nate Hood in Minneapolis or St. Paul, who mapped the downtown parking there. And that was a powerful thing, but only for one city. 
And in Edmonton, during its big debate about parking mandates, some of the activists there mapped parking in a similar way. 
But the special thing about this exercise is the sheer ambition of it, right? It's quite an audacious thing to try to get so many cities into one set of maps.

Maybe that's a good moment to bring in Etienne or Tony to talk about how did PRN get involved?

Tony Jordan: Tom became a member of the organization, I believe, and then reached out to me on the Slack. I believe he heard about it after City Nerd made that video about us back in December of 2022. Tom showed up and said he'd been working on this project and showed me a link to the Google maps he had. And I was immediately just very excited about it.

I have a image that I used in a slide deck back in 2015, 2016 of parking in Little Rock. I think there was an image that everyone was using. Every now and then someone would make one of these images with the red boxes showing downtown parking. But they weren't standardized or compiled in any one place.
So I think that one of the really powerful things about what Thomas was doing was looking at a number of cities and putting them all in one place. And when he brought them to Parking Reform Network, we were able to platform them in a way that tied them to an activity, to something to do about it, to some further messaging, so it's not just a tweet or instagram post.
Paul: That reminds us. Please do join Parking Reform Network if you haven't! No matter where you are in the world, you're welcome. There are plenty of volunteer activities that you can dive into and get actively involved. 
Tony: Bring us your projects!

A great complement to PRN's Parking Mandates Map [07:15]

Etienne Lefebvre: Yeah, exactly. One of our first projects was our Mandates Map. It's a map we have that's open source, where users from individual cities can submit reports. It's a way of tracking which cities has either removed or reduced the parking mandates, the minimum parking requirements, that cities have usually in their zoning codes. 
The idea also behind the, the parking lot map is that it's a continuation of the mandates map. The mandates map showcases the first step that cities have to do, you have to let builders build the amount of parking that they think is required, rather than imposing an artificially high amount.

Then the parking lot map offers a wow factor visualization of, wow, look at all the space that we have. Look at all the potential we have to really make our cities more livable, more walkable, and more in line with the challenges we face with the climate crisis, for example.

So many people go about their lives without understanding the massive costs that car infrastructure imposes on society as a whole. So when someone sees a map that shows that 30% of the surface area in their city is dedicated to the storage of cars, and those spaces that might only be in use for 30% of the day and then the rest is just empty ... That's a big issue that most people overlook. 

A huge reaction that took PRN by surprise! [08:33]

Paul: Etienne, you're PRN communications director and, you've been on the front line of people reacting to this and also you've been pivotal in making people aware of this exercise and the maps. Can you tell us a little bit more about that? 

Etienne: I was surprised myself and I had high expectations that we were going to be able to get through in the media. But it went above my expectations. 
When I joined in January, the task I set myself was helping out build our membership with the weekly newsletter and to engage the community and make sure that our monthly organizing round table was well attended. 
Then the parking lot map received a lot more media attention than I was anticipating. We were featured, for example, in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and it really snowballed from there. 

We could really feel in the air that there was such interest in urbanism and active transportation and in curbside management, which is where we come in. How do we best manage this abundant supply of parking that we have? How do we manage it in a way that creates more interesting places to live rather than these non places and desolate places like massive stroads or empty parking lots with shopping carts thrown around? How do we create vibrancy and community? I think that really resonated across both the United States and Canada.

Paul: Were there any particular cities where the media was especially interested and it made a big splash?

Tony: I was going to say, one of the one of the great things about when this map started going kind of viral was Axios started picking it up and did a number of articles about a lot of the cities. What was great was that in a few cities like Detroit and Atlanta and in Austin the local media. Other cities picked this up as well. [Such as Cleveland, Columbus, Houston, and San Antonio]

But in those three cities in particular, the local media picked it up and then reached out to people who happen to be in our network already and did additional interviews with them, either podcasts or local news stories. 
It was a great example of the Parking Reform Network being an activism organization and helping people to take action locally in their city. 
These maps were great because they actually touched off a conversation that then highlighted local efforts. It was fantastic to see some of our local advocates and members getting airtime because of these maps.

Etienne: I remember the Seattle director for urban planning also shared our maps and there were a lot of similar examples.

It really spread naturally and organically throughout both the social media environments and the traditional news media. 

People making good use of the maps [11:20]

Paul: Maybe that's a good moment to also talk about people starting to use the maps for other purposes.

Tony: One of the coolest things that we saw someone do with this data was, because we try to release them in open data ways under open source licenses, a number of places have taken some of this data and reworked it. 
So an artist, Mike McCubbins - Civic Graphics I think is his company - made just for himself an image in the style of the old National Park posters that was like, "welcome to the national parking lot of St. Louis". He's from St. Louis. 

Streetsblog saw that on his Instagram and commissioned a number of other posters of similar styles that went pretty viral for a little while. We're actually in the process of getting some postcard style format of those graphics printed up. 
And that was great too, because we commissioned Mike to make our more graphic parking map, so how these things kind of pile up. 
It's like Thomas shows up after watching the video. He joins. He brings this project to us. Next thing you know, we've got this graphic designer making some stuff on their own. Other organizations are commissioning art based on it. It really just goes to show how this network snowballs. 

Why is it a problem to have so much land devoted to parking? Is it just that the market has spoken? [12:40] 

Paul: Let's get back to some basics about what really is the problem here. Why is it a bad thing if there's a lot of land devoted to parking in the center of a city?

There are various reasons that you've already mentioned, but let's, let's dig just a little bit deeper. 
Maybe Tony could lead off on that one.

Tony: We often talk about Donald Shoup, who I think said (and we hear from other reformers too), parking is kind of like this dark matter of the urban landscape. It pushes everything apart. So these empty spaces, in addition to the environmental impacts they have - heating and water runoff - are also places that spread everything apart. And it's really in these central cities that we should be having housing and mixed use spaces.

But it doesn't change overnight. You have to do a lot of other things to get these parcels to redevelop. It's more than just getting rid of your mandates, of course, but there is tremendous potential in these spots.

Paul: Some people will say, the market has spoken. This is market forces. This is preferences. People want to drive. They want to park conveniently near their office downtown or where they're going shopping downtown. Who are you to argue against people's preferences? Is this just the market speaking or is there more going on here?

Etienne: For the last 100 years, we've had a distorted market where the government has mandated many types of car dependent infrastructure. That has, in effect, created a subsidy for drivers. In such a distorted market, it's very difficult to speak about the fair preference between choosing to drive and not choosing it. I think we should strive towards a world where we can really talk about the preferences of people in a fair market. But we're nowhere close to that. I think a lot of the things we're advocating for are really trying to get us there. 

Paul: That's right. Sometimes people ask us are we anti car? Well, to the extent that we want cars to pay their way and not be subsidized and not be artificially socially engineered to be excessively used, then maybe you would call us anti car. But to me that doesn't sound anti car. That just sounds like leveling the playing field.

And I'm glad you mentioned that enormous edifice of social engineering in favor of car based planning and development. Because I was going to zero in on the parking part. Which is several things. 
One is, in the US cities, the whole urban renewal program systematically decimated inner city neighborhoods and demolished buildings. And there were all these vacant lots. 
And then there is an additional distortion, which is not any kind of natural market phenomenon, but a distortion in the tax system. The taxation is based on the property investment rather than the land, mostly in most cities. So keeping land vacant and using it for parking is weirdly profitable for a surprisingly long time. That's land banking, but it's land banking distorted by this enormous hidden tax subsidy for parking and driving, which people just don't know about.

Tony, did you have something to add?

Tony: When we think about why it's so hard for these places to redevelop ... I mentioned that there's not usually parking mandates in these central city areas. But when you are requiring parking in all the less dense housing around a city center, that means we're kind of propping up that demand to have those things remain as parking in the central city.

Paul: I'm glad you mentioned parking mandates, because we should have mentioned them as one of the causes. Even though many central cities have abolished parking mandates relatively recently, many of them did have parking mandates all through the 1940s, 50s, 60s, 70s. They were not the only cause of demolitions for surface parking lots, but they were one of them.

Tony: One of the craziest things we've noticed is, when Thomas did his map of Portland, it was 11 or 12% parking in central Portland, which is supposed to be a city that's got pretty good transportation.

But we have another Parking Reform Network researcher, Ryan Martin, who did a map of the entire city of Portland, the whole city boundaries. And something like 20% of the city of Portland is surface parking. He didn't even really do the garages, so that indicates that the downtown is for a commercial center, the best case scenario. If your downtown is 25% parking, what does your more recent commercial space look like? It's probably 40 or 50 percent parking! So it's very hard to untangle and reuse that space downtown because just excessive parking is locking in car dependency outside of your central city.

Thomas: So the parking requirements are definitely a piece of the puzzle. It totally depends on the city. In cities that grew a lot after World War Two, parking requirements are a really big thing that influences them. In older cities, urban renewal was a big part of it and land banking, like you said.

Let's clear up some quibbles and nitpicks [18:14] 

Paul: I've been involved in data compilations about cities in the past, and one of the frustrations is you spend hours, weeks, months getting things right. avoiding errors, correcting errors, and then when you release these things, you get a lot of glib nitpicking quibbles or misunderstandings. It's a little frustrating, but it's understandable, right? People don't know all that background. 
So can you address one or two of the most obvious quibbles and nitpicks, just so we can clear those up for anyone who's listening.

Thomas: Tony knows about one of our biggest nitpicks. This is my bad. In Detroit there is a convention center that has a very clear parking lot on top. I mapped it in. Probably everyone in Detroit as well as their relatives messaged us that we mapped the convention center. They were very angry. We removed it and you know, there's still a lot of parking in Detroit. So the point was moot but that kind of thing happens a lot.

We also get a ton of requests to do podium parking and underground parking. One of the problems with that is, is we have no idea who has underground parking and who doesn't. We do this all based on satellite imagery.

Tony: It's an irony that about half the people are complaining that we're not counting enough parking and then half the people are complaining that we counted too much parking. So, we're probably hitting a good spot there. And it's hard to do this. 
People also complain because something new was built in a place on top of a parking lot. They're mad that Thomas hasn't actually gone out and verified the location personally. 
There are a lot of boundary complaints that, why did you do it here versus there. 
But ultimately, this isn't a life or death situation. We're proving a point, which I think holds.

Paul: And one of the best objections is, why haven't you mapped my city? And to which your answer is, "We would love to. Would you like to volunteer and please join the Parking Reform Network and come in and help us out?"

Thomas: Yeah, that's usually the response. Either that or we're on it. 
A lot of people also like to recommend their really small towns. But we always try to help people. Whoever wants to make their own maps, we help them out.

Paul: Does it take a lot of technical expertise to use the GIS software and the OpenStreetMap data?

Thomas: No, it just takes time. You could do a city of 100,000 in an hour or two.

Paul: So if you're interested, if you want your city included, even if it's outside the US, get in touch and we will help you out and do also join the network.

How can cities do better? How can they make better use of some of the land currently devoted to parking? [21:05]

Paul: Many cities have all of this land devoted to parking in their central cities. What can those cities do to do better?

Thomas: There's tons of examples of cities that have been completely leveled. Portland, Maine, was completely leveled by fire. Chicago, Illinois as well. And within a decade or two, most of their city was rebuilt.

So when we get rid of all of these regulations, regarding building, how high they can be, how much parking they need, and we get out of the way of developers who want to add housing, you find that when there's a demand and investment things can happen really fast.

A great example of this is Seattle's Denny Triangle neighborhood. You could look at the satellite map, where it was around 40 percent parking and now it's only around 10 percent. It's a night and day situation.

Paul: That's an excellent point. We should acknowledge that the peak of land devoted to parking was in the past, right? Probably the 1970s or 80s, maybe. So it's even more striking that the results that we've got in these maps are not even the worst of it.

Tony: I think also when we talk about these reforms, we should once again, not just focus on their downtown's though. 
Don't just try to fix these large lots downtown, but allow new development outside of the central city to not be car dependent.

Someday, hopefully with the help of AI or other things, we're going to have broader maps that show what's going on outside of these city centers. You'll see that there's still a lot of potential for mixed use development in a lot of other places.

If we can reduce car ownership and car dependency in those places, that will create that tremendous demand to make those very high value parcels redevelop. 
In the central city, a lot of times the land is so valuable that there's a very high trigger price. Usually you're not going to redevelop your central city parking lot with just some low rise buildings.

Paul: I had a list of various things too. One of them was a Montreal style surface parking tax or levy. 
Abolishing parking mandates, of course, is a key step. 
I learned recently that some cities are starting to ban new surface parking lots. For example, Gainesville, Florida has done that above a certain size, at least. Oregon is going to set surface parking maximums in certain cities. 
Cities have this land bank and there are various things they can do to encourage development and redevelopment of that land bank.

Tony: Most surface lots were built before there was much landscaping or water management. They don't have trees. The runoff is coming right off the lot and into the central sewer or onto the streets.

So you could require ... or like what France is doing, requiring large surface lots to have solar panels on top of them ... Or require that water runoff be minimized. 
That might encourage some redevelopment because then the landowner has to put in some money into the lot. It might tip the scales for them to build into something different.

However, there's a little bit of a double edged sword when you do this. If they do invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into retrofitting their surface lot, then it's probably going to stick around for at least a couple more decades until they get that investment back.

Shared parking also (Paul, one of your favorite things, right) is a good way to retrofit at least some of the structured parking because that's not going to go away anytime soon. If you legalize the shared use of that or incentivize shared use, then that can reduce the demand for the surface lots nearby and hopefully spur redevelopment.

Will redeveloping land devoted to parking cause parking problems? [24:56]

Paul: Some people hearing about parking being redeveloped will be saying, this is the only going to make it worse. 
One answer is that actually most of these downtowns don't have a shortage. They have an enormous glut, the map alludes to that. 
But one of the reasons why it seems like there's a shortage is partly because people are searching for free parking and not all of it's free. 
But secondly, a lot of that parking is not open to the public. 
The shortage is really not a problem for the foreseeable future in somewhere like Buffalo or Detroit, right? Some of that private parking will become shared. Some of that shared parking will be opened to the public. Some of it will turn into garage or underground parking at some point. Some of it will be priced more efficiently. The on street will get managed better. There's just 99 things that the landowners, the property owners and the city can do such that shortage is not going to be a problem. It's the glut that's the problem.

Etienne: I live in an apartment building and beside my place, 10 years ago, was a surface parking lot mainly for monthly passes for mostly commuters who worked in office buildings. 
Then they redeveloped the surface parking lot. They built a grocery store based on the podium level and then two large 30 story towers. But underneath they've built a six story underground parking lot. 
But the great part was that something like 20% of all the parking lots in the garage are reserved for a car share system. And so now today I often go to that parking garage, to use the car share system. There's a lot of people like me who live around here who now utilize a parking space way more efficiently than if I had to buy my own car and use my own parking space. 

What next for the parking lot mapping project? [26:46]

Paul: Let's end by just talking about what next for this project. 

Tony: Thomas has mentioned that he's been working on an additional number of cities in the traditional way. 
And there's an academic at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign who's lab is working on using machine learning to help find these lots. They're training their model with the maps that Thomas made and with the data that Ryan provided them from Portland.

There's also some integration, I think, down the line, hopefully, with our other map products, with the mandates map and with other advocacy tools that can tell more of a story around what's going on. 
And there has been interest in segmenting the lots versus the garages. Thomas, do you want to talk about that?

Thomas: Lots versus garages. The distinction is useful in the fact that surface lots are much more developable than garages. 
As for how time consuming that would be, I would say high. It would be very difficult. So that's not on particularly the top of the list.

But expanding it to all cities over 300,000, that's number one. 
There's also another project that I'd be interested in. Google Earth has a historical satellite image feature. You could toggle all of these cities to see what they looked like 20 years ago. Some cities have changed a lot, have redeveloped a lot of parking. Some cities have added more parking. So what are the cities doing that are removing lots? What are the cities not doing that have a lot of lots? We could shout out all of the cities that are doing really well and ask questions about the ones that, aren't improving at all.

Paul: That's fantastic. Etienne?

Etienne: I want to speak a bit more about the AI project. The goal there is really to create an AI classification system that's able to do what our parking lot maps are, but very quickly and for large areas.
The idea here is not to have a perfect accuracy, but to showcase a large swath of lands and you can have a rough estimate of how much parking. That would obviously be a very powerful tool.

Paul: Thanks to the three of you! I'm sure the listeners will find it quite inspiring that grassroots voluntary effort can result in a communication tool and a research tool that is so powerful and persuasive and important. Congratulations on the achievement so far, and we'll be looking forward to further developments.

Listen to the audio episode here: 


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