by Colin Fiske
Nobody knows how many parking spaces there are on the North Coast, but it’s a good bet that there are a lot of them. It’s been estimated that there are up to 2 billion parking spaces in the United States, and there are a lot more parking spaces per person in rural and suburban areas than in big cities. That means there are probably hundreds of thousands of places to park a car in Humboldt County alone. In other words, we can be pretty sure that dozens of square miles of the county are devoted solely to storing vehicles for various lengths of time.
This isn’t an accident. For the last three-quarters of a century, it’s been planned this way. For example, if you wanted to build a new single-family home in unincorporated Humboldt County today, you’d be required to also build between two and four off-street parking spaces alongside it—and often even more, because not all parking areas count toward the requirements. A new retail store, no matter how small, must build at least four off-street parking spaces for customers and one for each employee. These requirements are rooted in the assumption that everyone will own a car and drive to get around. In reality, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy: providing abundant free parking leads people to own cars and drive more than they otherwise would.
Perhaps even more importantly, cars take up a lot of space, so car storage is an expensive and inefficient use of land. All those required parking spaces add a lot to the cost of a new building, and the eventual owners, renters, or customers pay the price. Plus, car storage in all of its forms takes up a huge amount of space in our towns that could otherwise be used for more valuable purposes, like housing people.
A couple of years ago, the City of Eureka finally came to terms with the fact that its housing crisis could only be solved by converting some of the space set aside for car storage. It is now carrying out a logical and forward-thinking plan to ensure that affordable housing is built on city-owned land that currently houses only cars. Unfortunately, some people still seem to value the availability of short-term car storage more than affordable housing, and there has been fierce resistance to building housing in several of the proposed locations.
Few people on the North Coast still think it’s a good idea to pave over more working lands and natural ecosystems in order to build tract homes. Yet almost everybody acknowledges the need for more housing. That leaves us with no acceptable option except building in our existing communities. It could be said, ironically, that we’re lucky that our past planning practices resulted in a lot of underutilized asphalt, because it means we still have places to put new homes. But if we keep following those outdated practices—if we insist on preserving our huge amounts of car storage and providing even more parking each time we put up a new building—then we’ll never solve the housing crisis or provide any meaningful alternatives to the dangerous, polluting automobile.