What’s so Wrong with Free Parking?

Its unfair to have cities where parking is free for cars and housing is expensive for people.  –Donald Shoup

Tons of free parking in Carrboro

Free Parking and Invasive Vines

Since I’ve been hyper-focused on harvesting vines with which to make baskets, I’ve become hyper-aware of the ubiquity of the kudzu vine.  This is one pernicious vine.  Within the span of a few weeks, I’ve tripped over loops of kudzu, nearly pulled my arm out of its socket trying to tear the vine’s skin from its flesh, and have gotten lost in the rugged plant’s endless thickets. The vine and I, we have a relationship.

In fact, where we are in north central North Carolina, one is hardpressed to locate an edge, a riparian area, or a tree canopy without the woody vine.  

However, one place you won’t find kudzu—or virtually any living thing, for that matter—is across that span of asphalt we call a parking lot.  For all their trouble co-habiting, kudzu and parking lots share one common trait: both are unrelenting, invasive “species.”  


Well-intentioned—though hopelessly myopic—humans brought kudzu here from Japan some 140ish years ago.  And today—for the most part at least—we understand the perniciousness of kudzu, taking varied actions to “manage” or “control” its spread.  

Yet we do nothing of the sort with wretched car parking.  Indeed, we haven’t  quite come to terms with the devastating impacts of that other human-inflicted disease: abundant, subsidized—and most often wrongly called, “free”—car parking.

Calling Free Parking What it Truly Is

By some estimates, there are 8 parking spots for every car in the United States. With 263ish million cars nationwide, that means there are more than 2.1 billion parking spots in total.  And at 15’ x 8’ per spot, another 20’ of “maneuvering” space between sets of spots, that’s about 353 billion sq ft, i.e., 12,662 sq miles of surface area, i.e., enough to pave over the entire state of Maryland.

With such knowledge, I proposed we call parking lots out for what they are. We might begin by saying such things as “parking lots are…”:

  • Impervious hardscape.
  • Stormwater runoff heaven.
  • Urban heat-island bliss.
  • Dead zones to nearly all creatures.
  • Danger zones to all animals outside of vehicles.
  • Expanders of space between homes and libraries and schools and grocery stores and farmers markets and music venues and bars and pubs and restaurants and coffee shops and parks and playgrounds and commons.
  • Enablers of automobility and pollution and noise.
  • Shredders of the urban fabric.
  • Thwarters of walkers and runners and strollers and wheelchair users and conversationalists and mind-wandering poets and potters and writers and philosophers and mathematicians and musicians and architects and construction workers and baristas and bartenders and entrepreneurs. 
  • Tricksters of business owners’ and elected officials’ and suburbanites’ minds.
  • Quiet, overlooked, unforeseen assassins of community.
  • Killers of vibrancy and conviviality.
  • Purveyors of scarcity.
  • Stokers of humans’ competitive, anti-social selves,
  • The antithesis of abundance and human altruism, empathy, and cooperation.

Yet consider what people say about parking and listen to how they say it.

Consider the framing here. The article describes the library in terms of loss: “replace…public parking spaces now available…” It doesn’t depict how the library will be situated in an accessible area served by transit, sidewalks, bike infrastructure.  It says little about how the library will provide diverse community members with access to the internet, periodicals, books, workshops, opportunities to socialize, to see and be with others in their community. No. It will take away our 88 “public”  parking spaces—though, by definition, parking is NOT a public good, for such goods are nonrival and nonexcludable.

Not only that, all of this advocating for “public” or “free” parking is akin to cheering for kudzu to wrap itself around and suffocate a native, beautiful tulip poplar tree.

Creative Re-Use of Free Parking

A couple of years ago, I remember reading a story in Orion Magazine about a guy who lived in rural Georgia and who the local folks nicknamed the “King of Kudzu.” This man would snip away at kudzu vines, coil them up, and arrange them into whimsical sculptures. Several of his creations took the functional shape of baskets, others the form of mice, birds, and cattle. This man turned a pesky, invasive species and made it art.

We can and should do the same with parking. Turn surface lots into plazas or playgrounds. Transform parking spaces into community gardens or public parks. Connect islands of parking to create interesting, vibrant promenades, where people experience their community and feel a part of it. 

Most of us claim to care about the health and well-being of your friends and neighbors. Yet, we allow parking consume the land, creating dead zones where neither creature nor community may thrive.

And that’s the trick: getting to thriving. We humans have built pyramids and suspension bridges and space shuttles, but can’t seem to figure out parking.  It’s largely a matter of will. A getting together, organizing, and introducing a new “Story of Conviviality”—rather than what British writer, George Monbiot calls the “Restoration Story.”  And it can all begin with tidying up our house, starting with that malicious asphalt-laden disease we so benignly call parking. 

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