Opinion - Atlanta’s parking addiction

It’s time for an intervention if we want Atlanta to become a walkable and transit-connected city

To a person standing on the Edgewood Avenue bridge looking north, the most dominant feature of the landscape isn’t the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail. It’s the brutalist parking deck towering over its surroundings — one of four decks and lots that serve the single block between Edgewood and Lake avenues. Once built, the deck will house some of the more than 4,000 new parking spaces that have been built along the Eastside Trail since the housing boom began.

That glut of parking along the country’s most closely watched and ambitious trails-and-transit project is a testament to our city’s fierce determination to remain dependent on cars. And we need to wean ourselves off it if we ever want Atlanta to become a walkable and transit-connected city.

For the last few months, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet on the number of parking spaces along the Beltline and Atlanta Streetcar. The average cost to construct a parking space in a deck in Atlanta ranges from $12,000 to $15,000 per space. Based on my calculation, we’ve spent at least $48 million since 2005 on parking along a two-mile stretch of the Beltline. The same stretch of the Eastside Trail cost $13.8 million.

And the Atlanta Streetcar? According to Mayor Kasim Reed’s office, 2,875 new parking spaces have been built or are planned near the streetcar. That’s 700 more spaces than the peak daily ridership project officials originally hoped to see. The streetcar cost $100 million. We’ve spent one third as much on giving people reasons not to ride the Downtown transit line.

Every dollar spent on parking actively gives people a reason not to ride the streetcar and actively undermines our investments in biking, walking, and mass transit. Donald Shoup, a UCLA urban planning professor, put it succinctly in his book The High Cost of Free Parking: The more parking you build, the more people drive.

The phenomenon is called induced demand, and it’s very real. A recent study on rail systems in the United States over the last 30 years found the availability of low-cost parking to be the second strongest indicator of the lack of success of a line. The first was how much the streetcar runs alongside automobile traffic.

For Atlanta to be a more walkable or transit-oriented city, we need a mix of retail, residential, and commercial uses. To attract the people to support those shops, offices, and condos and apartments requires a variety of those uses be located in close proximity to each other.

Parking destroys this possibility. Every parking lot and parking deck pushes the grocery store farther from the bank, the bank farther from the bar, and so on. Property where buildings could house residents who could support these businesses is used for the storage of automobiles instead.

Eventually, parking becomes so commonplace that where you build has no relationship at all to walking, transit, or the surrounding neighborhood. Big box grocers are placed on the cheapest land available because everyone is expected to drive.

As an added bonus, parking lots contribute to our heat island effect, deplete our property tax revenue because they aren’t taxed as high as construction, add to your water bill through untreated storm water runoff, drive up the cost of rent, and generally make for a less pleasant city to walk through.

Whether near transit investments or for the general health of the city, we have to rein in our parking problem.

First, the city can stop requiring developers to build a minimum amount of parking and no longer permit surface parking lots. Second, officials should start thinking of parking in terms of a district or neighborhood, not individual locations. Shared parking should be allowed and encouraged. And residents who don’t want to pay for a parking space should be allowed to unbundle that cost from their rent.

Any plan to remake Atlanta at this scale will take decades. Parking will never disappear. The end goal is not the elimination of parking. The reality will be that parking will no longer be adjacent to every location — and that motorists might have to pay to park and subsequently walk to their destination.

Less parking is not merely some aesthetic or lifestyle preference. If we want to continue to grow as a city and to fill the vacancy and blight that is rampant, we need to make our city more desirable to live in. We need to start measuring transit projects, such as the streetcar and Beltline, in numbers of cars taken off the road, not development dollars spent nearby. We need to stop competing with the suburbs and their big-box stores and start competing with other cities that offer walkable neighborhoods and transit. If we want to continue to grow, we need to have the capacity to accommodate up to 500,000 new citizens. We cannot accommodate all their cars.

These changes take political will and leadership. It takes recognizing that parking is an impactful land-use decision that affects multiple aspects of our lives. It takes planning and the recognition that every apartment building along the Beltline wrapped in a loving, ‘til-death-do-us-part embrace around a parking deck is a building that will undermine transit when it finally comes. It takes prioritizing what’s best for Atlanta’s future — not making more room for even more cars.

Matthew Garbett is an Adair Park resident and troublemaker.