The Bay Area has twice as many parking spots as people—and there’s a hidden toll

‘There’s a disconnect between our environmental values and how much land we devote to storing cars’

With more than 15 million designated parking spaces, the nine-county Bay Area has twice as many spots as it has people. Lined up in a row end to end, all of those spots would encircle the Earth 2.3 times.

Those are the top line findings from a new census of the region’s parking supply by SPUR and the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI). The report represents the most comprehensive look yet at this ubiquitous type of infrastructure and its unintended consequences. All of that parking undermines public transit systems, worsens housing affordability and stands in the way of environmental targets, the report finds.

“There’s a disconnect between our progressive social and environmental values and how much land we actually devote to driving and storing cars,” said Laura Tolkoff, transportation policy director at SPUR and one of the authors of the parking census. “It should come as no surprise that two-thirds of Bay Area residents drive alone to work and for almost all of their daily needs.”

The Bay Area’s parking spaces are split between 6.4 million off-street spaces and 8.6 million on-street spaces. More than two-thirds are in residential areas or in residential buildings. The study found parking and roadways make up 20% of land in incorporated areas of the Bay Area.

The study’s authors used a combination of satellite imagery, local regulations and city records to count parking spaces, making sure not to include bus stops, driveways, fire hydrants and other areas where it’s illegal to park. Along the way, the research team checked its findings against other data sources as well as manual counts, said Mikhail Chester, a professor of sustainable engineering at Arizona State University and the lead study author. “We actually go into satellite maps and we count, and we see, are we about right?”

San Francisco has 634,000 parking spaces, evenly split between on- and off-street spaces. Some parts of The City had very high parking density. In a few downtown census tracts, with large parking garages and structures, the square footage of parking spaces was actually larger than the land area of the entire census tract.

One corroborating data source was a 2017 SFMTA study that found The City’s greater downtown area has 87,000 non-residential, off-street parking spaces, mostly in garages. That study also found there are 442,000 publicly available spaces in The City, not including private garages. Approximately 30,000 of those spaces were metered on-street spaces.

On a per capita basis, the Bay Area actually has the same number of parking spaces as Los Angeles County, at 1.9 spaces per person. However, both LA County and the Phoenix metro area reserve far more of their land for cars: 36% of incorporated land area in metro Phoenix and 41% of incorporated land in LA County are dedicated to parking and roadways.

While our region might be slightly less asphalt-saturated than others, the data still demonstrates that “the Bay Area has too much parking,” Tolkoff said.

In a follow-up report slated for release at the end of the month, SPUR is planning to make several recommendations about how the region should address what it describes as a glut of parking. The think tank recommends more cities follow San Francisco and eliminate parking requirements for new development. Another San Francisco policy SPUR wants to see regionwide is smart parking meters, whose prices go up and down according to demand.

Longer term, all of the parking in the Bay Area represents a big opportunity for new uses. If only 1% of the region’s parking area were rebuilt as housing, it could yield more than 12,000 units, SPUR found; if 5% were redeveloped, it could yield 68,000 units.

A key consideration for future parking policy will be equity, Tolkoff said. It’s important to recognize that increased parking costs can represent a “regressive” tax when evenly applied across the population. “On the other hand, we know that the status quo is not equitable, and the transportation system today doesn’t really work for anybody.”

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