Put It in Park

ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking

 A story carried by Bloomberg News in early July, “Night of Frenzied Buying Portends Slowing China Car Sales,” explains that governments in some Chinese cities are restricting car sales due to concerns with vehicle emissions and traffic congestion, as well as other problems with too many motor vehicles. Like where to put them. According to the story, “In Guangzhou, the average vehicle speed has dropped to about 20 kilometers per hour (12 mph) and is expected to slow further next year, the government says. There were a total of 2.41 million vehicles in the city at the end of May, more than triple the number of parking spaces.”

It is that last item, the parking situation, that’s addressed in a fascinating book by Eran Ben-Joseph, a professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning at MIT, ReThinking a Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking (MIT Press; $24.95). Not specifically Guangzhou, but parking lots the world over—their history, their design, and their impacts both local (central business districts have tried to compete with outlying malls by providing parking) and global (students in Guinea, where electricity isn’t reliable, study at night in the airport parking lot, where the lights generally shine).
According to the website Worldometers (worldometers.info/cars), there are over a billion passenger vehicles on the road today. And all of those cars have to be parked somewhere at some time, although one wonders whether some people in Guangzhou have to keep driving in some Kafkaesque nightmare of no space to go.
For most of us, however, parking lots are sort of like wall-paper. We don’t much think about them, and even when we are trying to find a place to park, it isn’t the lot per se that draws our attention, it is the availability of a 8- to 10-ft x 18- to 20-ft slot for us that matters.
Mobility designer Dan Sturges, now at Art Center (gradtrans.com) has long considered motor vehicles in a systemic way, noting that for cars are parked for more than 90% of the time. Not exactly a good use of the investment in sheet metal or asphalt. 
One of the arguments that Nissan and GM make for the electric vehicle (EV) is that it is possible to use a parked LEAF or Volt as an energy source (e.g., power goes out in your house, use your Volt as a generator). But consider how the EV is having an effect on the design of parking lots, as a small but growing number of lots are beginning to install charging stations.
Ben-Joseph celebrates the parking lot, provides a vast array of detailed information about lots and their designs the world over, and he puts lots into context regarding how they helped the development of the automobile.
Here’s a fun fact that he provides about parking in America: “A conservative estimate shows that cars would occupy 1,096,352 acres or 1,713 square miles (4,437 square kilometers) of land if they were all housed in surface parking lots.”—GSV