Maybe the inventors of Monopoly were onto something when they called their second most expensive property Park Place, because car storage is surprisingly costly.

We think of it as cheap, because we so rarely pay for parking at the time when we are using it. More than 90 percent of the time, our cars end their trips in spaces for which there is no charge.

But just because we’re not paying as drivers does not mean we are not paying in other ways—as residents, employees, and shoppers, for example. The costs of parking are concealed in higher rent and housing prices, lower profits and wages, and higher prices. We rarely think about the costs of parking, because parking itself is so ubiquitous. Because of city off-street parking mandates in land-use codes, it’s so commonplace we hardly notice it. Yet it’s a defining feature of modern cities: it’s one of the principal uses of urban and suburban land, as the image below of several blocks close to downtown Seattle illustrates. Consequently, it’s one of the principal uses of real-estate dollars.

This article quantifies just how expansive and expensive parking is. How much do we have? How much does it cost?

To make a long story short, parking probably covers 10 to 20 percent of the area of cities in the Northwest. Cascadia likely has more than 29 million spaces, and their average value is more (probably much more) than $5,000. That’s $145 billion of parking regionwide. For each car in the Northwest (average Blue Book value under $8,000), the region has at least 2.2 parking spaces. Their combined value is at least $11,000. Our car storage spaces are worth more than our cars.

There. If your curiosity is satisfied, you can stop reading. The rest of the article makes that short story longer by laying out the evidence and reasoning.

Parking Is Expansive

Photo by Flickr photographer add1sun.

Photo by Flickr photographer add1sun.

Urban planners suggest we have between two and eight times more parking spots than motor vehicles. Senior planner Chris Quigley of Translink estimates that the greater Vancouver, BC, area’s 1.5 million motor vehicles circulate among approximately 3.3 million parking spaces. That’s 2.2 spaces per car (see details in the appendix). This estimate is probably conservative. Still, if we assume only 2.2 spaces per vehicle not only in greater Vancouver, BC, which is the least auto-oriented of the region’s metro areas and therefore likely has less parking, but in all of British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, then Cascadia overall has 29 million parking spaces for its 13 million motor vehicles. At a typical size per space of 325 square feet (including access and maneuvering space), that’s 338 square miles of parking—more than the areas of Portland, Seattle and Vancouver combined. In short, even on conservative assumptions, we have oceans of parking. It may not seem that way, because parking is scattered across the landscape in ones and twos and clusters and lots.

By one set of estimates from the 1990s, if you took all of Portland’s downtown parking lots, garages, and curb spaces and spread them out on the ground, the resulting super-lot would cover 46 percent of downtown Portland. If you did the same thing in Vancouver, BC, it would cover 42 percent (see pages 162-3).

Of course, downtowns are small, and they are magnets for cars. What about citywide?

In Seattle, about 5 percent of all land—one twentieth of the city—is curb parking, according to University of Washington architecture professor Rick Mohler. (UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup suggests that curb parking typically consumes 5 to 8 percent of city land [see page 505], and Seattle has a dense street grid compared with many places, so Mohler’s estimate may be conservative.) Seattle’s half million curb slots may account for half its total spaces (see appendix), yet on-street spaces actually require less land than other spaces because the traffic lanes serve as driveway and maneuvering room. Mohler assumed just 160 square feet per curb space. A typical off-street parking space in a lot or garage requires twice that much area or more. If the other half of Seattle’s parking requires twice as much area per space, then it takes 10 percent of Seattle’s area, for a total of 15 percent of the city devoted to parking. On the other hand, a small share of parking is “stacked” in garages and does not make exclusive use of land: the same land may support three levels of parking and several floors of office space, for example. Thus, Seattle likely devotes 10 to 15 percent of its land to parking, and the figure is likely closer to 15 than to 10 percent. As a crude estimate, I’ll say 13 percent.

Seattle proper is among the least auto-oriented parts of Cascadia, so other jurisdictions likely devote more land per resident to parking. Off-street parking has dominated the site plans of most commercial developments since World War II. In Olympia, Washington, for example, lots zoned for commercial development are covered by 53 percent parking and driveways and 26 percent buildings (see pages 134-135).

Translink inventoried off-street, non-residential parking in 2005 and estimates in a recent report that it covers 3.7 percent of urbanized land in the Vancouver, BC, metropolitan area overall, and 8.6 percent of the city of Langley; 6.8 percent of Richmond; 6.6 percent of Burnaby; 3.7 percent of Vancouver; and 2.7 percent of Surrey. Combining the area of parking at curb spaces and residential spaces with these tallies would likely show that cities such as Langley and Richmond devote a larger share of their land to parking than does Seattle. In suburban cities in the United States, which sprawl more than do Vancouver’s suburbs, the figure may be higher still, possibly as high as 20 percent.

Adding it all up, parking likely occupies 10 to 20 percent of city land in Cascadia.

Parking Is Expensive

Photo by Flickr photographer kayaker1204.

Photo by Flickr photographer kayaker1204.

How much are those spaces worth? The value of the land under them alone is worth billions of dollars. The Right Size Parking study sponsored by King County reports appraised land value for multifamily buildings at well over $100 per square foot. The weighted average of Seattle properties in the survey was $134 per square foot, for example. But King County is expensive compared with other parts of Cascadia. To be cautious, let’s assume regionwide land values in multifamily zones of just $50 a square foot. At that value, a single apartment parking space—325 square feet, including circulation space—is worth $16,250 for the land alone.

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  • That figure may overestimate the value, because it assumes all parking is in surface lots, which it is not. Some parking is stacked and therefore uses less land. On the other hand, where parking is not on the surface, construction costs dramatically push up its value. Even a surface space typically cost $3,000 to build in the 2000s. Garage parking, especially if it’s underground, can cost tens of thousands of dollars per space to build. The City of Seattle paid $61,000 to construct each of the underground slots in the Pacific Place shopping center (see page 190). On net, the Northwest’s off-street parking spaces at multifamily buildings may average more than $20,000 apiece, counting both land value and construction cost.

    The average resale value of cars in the existing fleet in the United States is probably under $8,000. It was $5,500 in 1997, the most recent year for which I’ve been able to find data (see page 208). Adjusted for the rising cost of new cars (a better measure of changing vehicle values than overall inflation), that’s about $7,600 today. To check this figure, I contacted three experts in transportation economics. They offered back-of-the-envelope estimates that all came in well under $8,000.

    Parking at single-family houses is also probably worth more than the cars it holds. Land in single-family zones is usually less expensive than land zoned for apartment and condo buildings. On the other hand, garages at houses, like those at apartments, are still expensive to build, so parking there too is likely worth more than $8,000 per spot.

    But even if we cautiously estimate that each Cascadian parking space is worth only $5,000 on average—assuming cheap land and much-depreciated construction costs—parking is still more valuable than cars. After all, parking spaces outnumber cars. If we accept that we have only 2.2 parking spaces per vehicle in the Northwest (a conservative ratio), that’s still $11,000-worth of parking for each the region’s vehicles, each of which is worth less than $8,000 on average.

    UCLA’s urban planning professor Donald Shoup argues that US parking infrastructure is not only worth more than all the vehicles it stores, it may also be worth more than all the country’s roads (see page 209). The annual costs of parking, he further argues, exceeds the annual cost of fueling, maintaining, and operating cars.

    One final number flows from the other conservative estimates: If the Northwest has 29 million spots, and each is worth $5,000, that’s $145 billion worth of parking.

    Park Place indeed.

    Appendix: Estimating Parking Spaces

    Estimating Seattle’s Parking Spaces

    Spaces Type Source of estimate
    500,000 On-street curb spaces Seattle Department of Transportation rough estimate, made after calculation of average spaces per linear foot and total length of city streets, adjusted for intersections, driveways, fire hydrants, and more
    300,000 Off-street residential spaces Assumes just one off-street space per residential dwelling unit in city (probably conservative), and is very rough
    85,000 Off-street non-residential spaces in downtown and University District From 2010 Puget Sound Regional Council inventory of parking supply (downtown includes First Hill)
    115,000 Off-street nonresidential spaces elsewhere A guess! Includes Park-and-Ride lots; commercial, industrial, and institutional parking in Northgate, SODO, residential neighborhoods, industrial districts, stadiums, plus all of the parking at institutions such as churches, schools, colleges, and universities.
    1,000,000 All parking in Seattle  

    Estimate of Parking in Greater Vancouver, BC

    Spaces Type Source of estimate
    1 million On-street curb spaces Translink rough estimate, made after calculation of average spaces per linear foot and total length of city streets, adjusted for intersections, driveways, fire hydrants, and more.
    1.3 million Off-street residential spaces Translink estimate, based on number of residential units and average numbers of parking spaces per unit in different cities.
    1 million Off-street non-residential spaces From Translink database. For one year in the mid-2000s, before its repeal, Translink collected a tax on nonresidential off-street parking. The tax collection effort inventoried and mapped this type of parking.
    3.3 million All parking
    Chris Quigley, senior planner, Translink, Metro Vancouver, private communications, Spring 2013.