Parking is Harmful to Small Businesses
May 12, 2019

I am a home-owner and live in a building without parking.

Buildings along my street in Hoboken, NJ.

The main disincentive to owning our car is that it is expensive. Since I work in New York City, it is cheaper and faster to commute via transit. Let's do the math:

Monthly commuting costs via car Monthly commuting costs via transit
Garage near home $200 NJ Transit 2 zone monthly pass $107
Garage near work $400 MTA 30 day pass $127
Peak hour toll through the Lincoln/Holland tunnel 20 days a month. $250    
Fuel (assuming 9 mile round trip, at 20 days a month, at 23 miles per gallon, around $2.92/gallon in the NYC metro area) $22.85    
Car insurance $139.92    
Monthly driving costs $1,012.77 Monthly transit costs $234

This excludes the huge upfront cost of purchasing a car and occasionally paying for maintenance. A benefit of buying a monthly transit pass is that you can go out on weekends for free (although my wife has to pay, because she works from home and has no need for a monthly pass.) I know people who live in Hoboken and have a car. They are very good people, and some of them have a reason for needing a car, such as they need to commute out to the suburbs of New Jersey or regularly have to make site visits with a car full of equipment.

I have other friends that have a car, even though they do not need it for work. An observation I have made is that people who live in buildings that have on-site parking are more likely to own a car than those who live in buildings that do not. This makes sense - if you rent an apartment that comes with an allocated parking space, or own a house with a garage, the cost of just keeping a car sitting there is very cheap (if you never drive it, all you have to pay for is insurance), so if you already own a car, it makes sense to keep your car. But, if you have to pay hundreds of dollars a month for a place to park your car, you will question if you really need a car.

Here is a building in Hoboken with parking on the ground floor.

Hoboken is a Complete Neighbourhood - the entire city and everything you need is self-contained in only 1.275 square miles, which makes it very easy to get around on foot. One of the distinguishing features of a Complete Neighbourhood is you never have to walk very far (more than 5 minutes) to get most of your everyday needs, and because these stores only serve those in the immediate area, the stores tend to be small. Here are some of the small businesses that make up my hyper-local economy (by hyper-local, I mean Google Maps says the farthest of these is only a 3 minute walk from my home);

A bodega - a regional term for a convenience store that sells everything from milk, to toilet paper, to fresh vegetables, to cigarettes.

An Italian deli. Fresh warm mozzarella cheese, freshly made meatballs, a variety of cold cut meats, salads, and imported treats from Italy.

A butcher shop. Steaks, racks of ribs, bacon, whole turkeys.

Our local pharmacy.

Our local florist. We often come here for potting mix for our house plants.

A good restaurant for brunch.

..and many more. Having all of these stores within a few blocks of home is one of the conveniences that make urban living awesome - it is no big deal if you happen to run out of eggs in the midsts of cooking, because you can be back in 5 minutes.

Seeing many small, locally-owned, diverse businesses scattered around is a sign of a healthy local economy. They make it possible to live a decent life without needing a car (when a business is only a pleasant 5 minute walk away, do you really need a vehicle (be it a car, bike, or transit?)) But, more importantly, their granularity in ownership is an alternative to the large centralized winner-takes-all economic model, where if you spend all your money at large chains such as Walmart or CVS, profits from around the country flow to a very small (and shrinking, through corporate mergers and buy-outs) number of owners. The problem with capitalism is that there are not enough capitalists. Seeing these small businesses emerge in your local neighbourhood is important for the long-term health of our economy.

My second observation is that people who own a car rarely frequent these small businesses. Many of my friends that own a car did not even know there was a corner bodega or a neighborhood pharmacy close by. Again, these are good people, and if I own a car, I would rarely frequent these businesses either, because I would think;

  1. If I am going out to do something, I might as well use my car that is sitting in the garage. Why make things harder if I do not have to?
  2. If I am in a car, why would visit a business in an urban area where I might have to park blocks away? It does not take long to reach the suburbs, where I can find ample parking.
  3. It is a lot of overhead to find a parking space, park my car, get out, get back in, slowly reverse out of my parking space, merge back into traffic, etc. Why would I waste my time visiting multiple businesses when I can visit a mega-store and get everything under one roof?

If I owned a car, the logical thing for me to do would be to drive out to the suburbs, where parking is easy, the selection of goods are larger, prices are often cheaper, and I can get everything under one roof. Because, why would you not?

Your car would rather you go here.

I believe that, in urban areas, bundling parking with homes is bad for the local economy because of the above two observations; 1) unless you need a car for your work, getting free or cheap parking with your home is a good indicator on whether one would have a car, 2) if you own a car, it is easier to drive out into the suburbs rather than support your small neighbourhood businesses. Most people tend to do what is easiest.

Also, many buildings with garages are unpleasant to walk past. At best, we encounter the odd curb-cut and roller door. At worst, we have a building on a top of a garage, and the entire street level experience is either a long blank wall or just windows into a garage (a good land use rule would be to prohibit ground floor parking - both indoors and outdoors!) The most anti-urban design I saw was a building where the elevator and lobby took you straight into the parking garage, and the exit for walking out to the street felt like a neglected fire escape.

Walking past an apartment building on top of a garage.

An unpleasant streetscape discourages walking. When we walk down a bland or repetitive streetscape, we are exerting energy while seeing very little visual progression through our environment, and this makes us feel much more exhausted than walking down a beautiful human-scale street where we see rapid visual progression (such as walking past 20 slightly different townhomes) for exerting the same amount of effort.

Traditional architecture, street level granularity, a few compact front gardens (not "greenspace"). How could you not enjoy this walk?

It was interesting listening to the local businesses talk about parking during the public meetings where Hoboken was discussing redesigning Washington Street. I came to realize that the businesses did not have a problem with long term parking (street space is too valuable for long term storage, and I wonder how many customers from outside of town would actually drive to a local business in Hoboken rather than to the suburbs as described above), but rather the issue was around quick drop offs and pick-ups. Ironically, the general consensus was that we need double parking because too many cars parked on Washington Street, blocking the quick drop offs and pick-ups! Perhaps what they want is less parking and more loading zones?

Parking is harmful to small businesses.