ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode discuss how parking has shaped the American city with writer Henry Grabar. His new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World explores how the abundance of free parking in our urban centers may be holding them back.
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Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.
Lauren Goode: We’re noodling. We’re live noodling.[Music]
Lauren Goode: Hi, I’m Lauren Goode.
Gideon Lichfield: And I am Gideon Lichfield. And this is Have a Nice Future, a show about how fast everything is changing.
Lauren Goode: Each week we talk to someone with big audacious ideas about the future and we ask them, “Is this the future we want?”
Gideon Lichfield: Our guest this week is Henry Grabar, author of Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.
Henry Grabar (audio clip): If you drive everywhere and you’re one of the people who is competing for parking spaces and complaining about parking and feeling aggrieved at your parking situation, it’s not your fault. I mean, we have designed this system and you are to some extent a prisoner of it.[Music]
Gideon Lichfield: Lauren, why should I care about a book about parking?
Lauren Goode: Do you mean you personally or the collective you?
Gideon Lichfield: I mean, it’s always about me, isn’t it?
Lauren Goode: Of course. [Chuckle]
Gideon Lichfield: So anyway, I ride a bicycle, I use public transport. I don’t own a car.
Lauren Goode: But you own a motorcycle though.
Gideon Lichfield: Thank you for the street cred, but I keep it in storage most of the time.
Lauren Goode: OK, so here’s why you should care about parking.
Gideon Lichfield: I’m all ears.
Lauren Goode: This isn’t just about the future of parking, it’s about the future of the cities. And you care about cities, right? You’re a city dweller.
Gideon Lichfield: True, I am. And I think we all care about the future of cities, especially after the pandemic, we’ve been wondering what it’s going to be like as urban space changes.
Lauren Goode: Exactly, this is a theme that has come up before on this show. And I think as we have filtered back into the real world, the physical world, it’s hard not to notice how our use of space has changed.
Lauren Goode: I mean, for me, I think one of the most obvious signs of this when you walk around cities is those outdoor dining shacks or parklets that have popped up on streets outside of restaurants.
Gideon Lichfield: I love that we call them “parklets,” like we can’t let go of the idea that they’re also a form of parking.
Lauren Goode: Exactly, yeah. And whether you call them a parklet or a shack or an extension of a restaurant probably depends on how you feel about the parking spaces they occupy.
Gideon Lichfield: Yes, and then there’s the way that we’ve just seemingly decided that some streets can be closed to traffic so people can walk on them and enjoy the outdoors.
Lauren Goode: Yeah, there are a couple of good examples of that in San Francisco, right? JFK Drive and Golden Gate Park is now closed to cars, which personally, I love. I ride my bike there a lot.
Gideon Lichfield: OK, so what’s the connection to parking?
Lauren Goode: OK, so here’s the connection. Our guest today, Henry Grabar, believes that parking explains a lot about how we use the space in our cities. He’s a writer for Slate Magazine, and this new book, Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World, talks all about how we have built up this parking infrastructure in cities to mirror the suburbs, and how that really informs a lot of other uses of space in our downtowns and maybe that’s not a good thing.
Gideon Lichfield: OK, so what is his argument?
Lauren Goode: Well, he says that we need to rethink the idea that parking needs to be so abundant because cities are not suburbs, so we shouldn’t treat them that way.
Gideon Lichfield: That’s revolutionary, right?[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: You joke, but if something were to change in the area of parking, it really would be revolutionary. And I’m convinced after doing this interview that we really do need to rethink parking, and hopefully you’ll be convinced too. That’s coming up right after the break.[music]
Lauren Goode: Hi Henry, welcome to Have a Nice Future. Thanks for joining me on the show today.
Henry Grabar: Thanks for having me.
Lauren Goode: You write that there are around a billion parking spots in the United States, more than four spots for each car. This is insane. How did it get to this point where there’s this gross overabundance of parking spots?
Henry Grabar: The parking spot is of course an obligatory part of the driving experience, so if you’re gonna drive, you need parking. And over the last 100 years, we have taken it for granted that parking ought to be free, it ought to be available and ought to be convenient. And so over the last 100 years, we have basically succeeded in making parking free, available and convenient for most drivers in this country, and the consequence of that is that we have paved over enough land to cover the State of Connecticut.
Lauren Goode: Can you tell us how the mistakes or the lack of foresight of urban planners and America’s general excitement when the car was first introduced led to this?
Henry Grabar: So in the 1920s, already cities are being overwhelmed by the amount of traffic that is caused by everyone buying cars and driving them downtown. They don’t have enough parking. After World War II, cities begin to come up with a solution for this. So one option is they can build public garages, but they also do something clever, which is that they include parking in the zoning code, and what that means is every time you wanna build something new, or every time you wanna renovate an existing building and change its use, you are required to provide a certain number of parking spaces, and in fact, a very large number of parking spaces. Because the way these codes are designed is they’re designed to provide enough parking as if you were building in the suburb, so they’re designed to park urban buildings to suburban standards, and the suburbs are defined by these retail establishments like malls with ample free parking. And this seems to be the main source of concern for downtown at this time. You imagine the American city in the 1940s and ’50s and you think so many challenges being confronted—substandard housing, deindustrialization, racial strife, pollution—all this stuff is going on, and yet city leaders are obsessed with parking? But in fact they are. And it’s because they think that if they provide enough parking, they’ll be able to finally find somewhere for all that traffic to go and they’ll be able to compete with the suburbs.
Lauren Goode: It’s amazing to think that city planners looked at something like the suburban mall and said, “You know? We should have a version of that in the middle of this densely populated city. Just a lot of parking.”
Henry Grabar: And the fact is, downtown was never gonna be able to compete with the suburbs on suburban terms. Downtown was never gonna provide as easy a traffic and parking experience as you could find driving to the mall.
Lauren Goode: You also describe the phenomenon where we have so much parking, but it actually feels like there are no parking spaces. How did we land there?
Henry Grabar: Everybody wants to go to the same place at the same time, right? There are the central business district, or let’s say, where people work, those areas fill up during the day, where people go out to restaurants, those areas fill up at night, and so this is the way humans move through the world. When it comes to parking, it’s just very, very difficult to satisfy the geometric demands of car storage because parking takes up a lot of room and it costs a lot of money to build, so you can’t just say, “Alright, well, let’s dig out 40 stories of underground garage here,” it doesn’t work that way, because it costs way too much money. And you can’t just put all the parking on the surface, because then what you end up with is basically a Walmart, right? Now that said, a lot of places that say they suffer from a parking shortage, in fact do not. And what we’ve learned is that there is enough parking for everybody who wants to park, it’s just that it’s not managed very well.
Lauren Goode: So fast forward to today, is parking inherently political? It seems like people have very strong opinions on whether they think parking is a right or something that’s a nice to have.
Henry Grabar: There are two sides. [Chuckle] And it’s not political, it’s not red and blue, it’s not left and right. The two sides are, “I love my parking and I need to have as much of it as possible, and so more parking is always good.” And the other side is, which comprises, I think both people on the left and on the right, is to say that this is an unfair imposition on architects and builders and owners of land to build all this parking. And there’s two reasons. The left-wing reason is typically the idea that this parking requirement impedes the creation of affordable housing, subsidizes car ownership and fossil fuels, and ensures that we will have more driving, a less walkable environment and ultimately a more fragmented community. Literally fragmented because parking lots tend to push the buildings apart from each other. Now on the right, I think people have that last concern as well, but they would also perhaps take issue with the imposition on somebody’s property rights. The government is allowed to tell you what you should do with your land in certain respects, but the obligation to provide parking with every—if you wanna open a new brewery in an old industrial building, that seems particularly unnecessary.
Lauren Goode: You often link accessible parking and affordable housing in this book, and they’re often presented as an inverse relationship, and I’m wondering what the trade-offs are between the two. Is there a way that accessible parking and affordable housing can co-exist?
Henry Grabar: The first concern has to be: How do we build more housing? Because the country is stuck in this really serious shortage of housing generally, and affordable housing in particular. And the thing is when it comes to building affordable housing, there are two ways in which the obligation to provide parking—and when I say “the obligation to provide parking,” I’m talking first and foremost about these laws, but also about the political sense that housing must be built with parking. And you see this come up in projects even that conform to the letter of the law, that they still need some kind of approval from the zoning board or a city councilman, or just the general sense of approval from a community meeting full of neighbors in order to get a project over the line. And in all of these cases, whether it’s the law or it’s the politics, the obligation to provide parking adds an enormous cost onto the building, as much as 10 percent, 20 percent of the rent, and it takes up a lot of room. Therefore it discourages us and in fact maybe impedes us from building a lot of the types of housing that have characterized the growth and development of the American city in the 19th and 20th century, and a lot of the types of housing we love most—brownstones, bungalow courts, triple decker, you know, those painted ladies—those don’t fulfill parking requirements. And all of this stuff is an example of the ways that parking impedes the creation of affordable housing.
Lauren Goode: Let’s talk about some potential solutions. Tell me about Shoupism? This is something you write about in the book.
Henry Grabar: Don Shoup was the first person to really shine a light on the practice of parking minimums, this idea that urban buildings should be part to suburban standards, and he proved that a lot of those rules were pretty ridiculous and were leading to huge oversupply of parking in a lot of places, and not to mention the expense that they added on to the cost of development. He was also one of the first people to look at the potential of parking meters. Shoup realized that parking meters had this incredibly valuable power, which is that they could organize the way people parked on a street, but how long they wanted to park and how much they were willing to pay for it. And with these two ideas, one about parking minimums and the other one about parking meters, he basically upended a half century of urban planning thinking. And not only that, but he inspired a generation of followers, the Shoupistas.
Lauren Goode: They’re like the Swifties of Donald Shoup?
Henry Grabar: They are the Swifties of Donald Shoup, but the tickets are not quite as expensive.[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: Something that strikes me about Shoupism though, is that this kind of means the
people who can’t afford to park, or at least will have to think twice about it, are now responsible for figuring out another way around. Whereas the people who can’t afford parking will just keep driving and then paying. How do you account for that?
Henry Grabar: That’s one of the big pushbacks against this movement, is if you put a price on parking, you do away with this kind of egalitarian cache that has become all the more important at the heart of our cities as they’ve grown more and more expensive. I have two thoughts about that. The first one is that we have to recognize that the fear of a parking shortage is the motivator against permitting new neighbors to move into neighborhoods. Right? The reason that people are so reluctant to let new people move into their neighborhood is often because they’re afraid they’re gonna encroach on the parking supply, and so in that sense, the expectation that parking should be free and it should belong to me is actually a pretty reactionary force in municipal politics. So that’s the big picture, but then on a local level and the individual level, I think the other thing to understand is that free parking is great when you can find it, but what happens when you create free parking at a city level is that you ensure that people who need parking are gonna spend a lot of time driving around and looking for it, because the best spots will always be taken all day with people storing their cars for untold amounts of time—days, in New York City’s case, weeks at a time. And that adds costs on too. Like low-income people who work with their cars, who depend on their cars, their time is worth something too. And so when you tell them that they’re gonna have to drive for 10 minutes and they don’t know if they’re gonna be able to find a spot to keep their appointment or drop off their package or whatever it is, that has a cost too. It’s not as obvious, perhaps as the $2 you need to put in the parking meter, but it is significant nonetheless.
Lauren Goode: How do you create policy then that ensures that the money that people would pay for a parking premium goes to the community to pay for things like better public transportation, instead of being allocated to other elements of a city budget and not actually improving the public transit system?
Henry Grabar: So this is Don Shoup’s third big idea, and he calls it the Parking Benefit District. And the idea here is that the parking meter revenues get plowed back into local improvements, and this way you make people feel better about paying for parking meters. Because if they see that the money they’re putting into these meters isn’t just going into some vault in the city coffers miles away, but is in fact paying directly for things like street trees and benches and public improvements, then they’ll feel like they’re supporting public infrastructure. And this is an argument for parking meters that goes back decades. I found a clip from Batman from the 1960s where Batman says, “Paying the meter is the right thing to do because it supports our infrastructure.”
Henry Grabar: So this is an old idea.
Lauren Goode: It’s right up there with Smokey the Bear and also Say No to Drugs.
Henry Grabar: Yes, yes. But this one is true. This is true, that paying the parking meter can
support civic infrastructure and can raise money. I think the other thing about the equity component of this is that I think we have to be wary of asking every single feature of the urban environment to bear the responsibility for solving societal inequality. In the case of the parking meter, it’s true that free parking is going to have some kind of an equitable effect on somebody who depends on the ability to park for free, but you also need to weigh that against all the negative effects of free parking, which include in addition to the time it takes to find a parking space, you’re also creating a lot of congestion. And that congestion creates pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, pedestrian injuries. So again, a lot of externalities associated with free parking.
Lauren Goode: It’s interesting though that you say you’re not actually anti-car?
Henry Grabar: What I mean is, if you drive everywhere and you’re one of the people who is competing for parking spaces and complaining about parking and feeling aggrieved at your parking situation, it’s not your fault. I mean, we have designed this system and you are to some extent, a prisoner of it.
Lauren Goode: You also write about the right to the city. Why is this concept important?
Henry Grabar: What are cities? Cities are places that exist because they are great concentrations of people, and what they offer us is a sort of magic that comes around only when you get a large number of people in a single place. And they are also, of course, the seat of our civic institutions and amenities and museums and all this stuff, and so I think it’s important to share cities and to make them open and accessible to everybody.
Lauren Goode: We asked San Francisco mayor London Breed, a version of this question in our very first episode of Have a Nice Future, so I wanna pose it to you, which is: What’s a city you look to for inspiration around solving the parking problem? Or who is doing parking “right”?
Henry Grabar: It depends what you want. This is gonna be an annoying answer, but every city is sort of in a different place. I was just in Cincinnati, and Cincinnati is a place where there is no subway system. The mass transit system is good, but it’s limited and there’s a lot of job sprawl, and I think having an automobile is gonna be necessary for a long time to maintain access to all the jobs in the region. Now that said, Cincinnati still has established these really cute streets that are closed to traffic with parklets, and it was an effort that began during the pandemic and that they’ve since made permanent. And to me, it just shows that people’s conception of public space is changing, and the idea that the curb has to be for auto storage has gone out the window. Even if there’s been some retrenchment in places where they’ve begun to open streets back up to cars where they have been closed to cars, that epiphany lingers on, and I think you see that all across the country in little nooks and crannies where people have decided that parking is no longer the highest and best use of this space. Now, if we’re gonna think on another level about a city that can really begin to rethink the role of car ownership itself, Paris is a good example. Because they’re moving towards almost like a Tokyo model of, if you wanna have a car, find a place to store it that’s not in the public right of way, because the public right of way belongs to the public, and your car doesn’t belong here. One of the things that I find most inspiring that’s happening in Paris is since the pandemic, just in the last three years, they have closed the streets outside more than 200 schools to traffic. Just by doing that, they have created these sudden neighborhood plazas that function as a kind of a bridge between the life of the school and the life of the neighborhood. It’s like a law that if you remove the parking spaces in the traffic from a street, people will stop using the sidewalk and they will walk right down the middle of the street, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
Lauren Goode: It sounds really idyllic, honestly. Speaking of parklets and dining shacks that popped up during the pandemic, how have they changed the way we use space in our cities? And are they the future?
Henry Grabar: It’s a great question. That’s a San Francisco original right? The first parklet started on Market Street, I believe. I think the long-term idea has taken hold, and that’s that these curb spaces could be used for something other than parking. In a lot of cases, it’s in fact the very use of the curb for parking that impedes us from moving on to a new transportation paradigm, because when it comes to creating rapid transit bus lanes where bus commuters can get where they’re going quickly, when it comes to creating safe bike lanes where people can feel safe riding with their kids, et cetera, what stands in the way of that is in fact street parking. It is an actual oppositional situation, where the priority we place on parking stops us from building a system where we wouldn’t need to place so much priority on parking.
Lauren Goode: What keeps you up at night? Aside from parking.
Henry Grabar: I’m worried about the state of American mass transit. If we’re going to reduce our reliance on automobiles, if we want the median auto ownership of an American household, which is 2.2 cars to fall to two, to fall to 1.8 cars per household, we are going to need better mass transit. I think they need to come to realization pretty quickly that their mission isn’t about getting people downtown—it’s about permitting trips to be made without the car. And that requires rethinking the way these routes are designed, requires rethinking when buses and trains arrive, it requires rethinking who you’re serving. I mean, it’s not a white collar worker who’s working in a bank downtown, it’s probably something more like a mom taking her kids to school, or a dad running an errand at 2 PM in the afternoon, or somebody working a late night shift at a bar. Those are the people who they need to focus on serving, and they have been neglected previously by transit, and unless transit manages to pick up the slack and meet those customers where they are, I’m worried these systems are gonna get into a cycle of decline.
Lauren Goode: Absolutely. What makes you hopeful these days?
Henry Grabar: Electric bicycles. [Chuckle] The electric bicycle is going to revolutionize the degree to which the bicycle is an accessible and friendly mode of transportation for people. I’ve seen it, because in Europe, e-bikes are taking off, they’re out-selling cars, they are out-selling bicycles. And people are using them for things that literally were not possible five, 10 years ago with regular bikes. I’m talking about, like, parents taking their kids to school, taking like two kids ages 5 and 7 on the back of a bicycle. And obviously, you would have had to been Lance Armstrong to do that 10 years ago on an acoustic bike, but now it’s possible. And that’s to say nothing of the logistics arm of it, like a lot of big city deliveries in European cities are now being made by cargo bike, because they’ve realized, funnily enough, that they’re just that much easier to park. And that actually saves a lot of time, even if you can’t go 40 miles an hour on highway on an e-bike, when you get to your destination you have no trouble pulling over. And so companies are discovering they’re actually more efficient for a lot of these urban logistics operations. And again, both in terms of freight and in terms of making cycling more accessible, I think we’re on the verge of a sea change in how people think about bicycles and how people think about getting around.
Lauren Goode: Henry, thank you so much for joining me on Have a Nice Future. It’s been really nice talking to you about what we hope is a parking-free future.
Henry Grabar: Not parking-free, just parking-light.[Music]
Lauren Goode: So Gideon, after listening to Henry, are you going to sell your motorcycle? I realize it only takes up a sliver of a parking space, but has this changed your mind about anything?
Gideon Lichfield: There are a lot of reasons why I might sell my motorcycle, but the lack of parking is probably not the most important one.[Chuckle]
Gideon Lichfield: But you know, I was blown away by the numbers in that interview. There are a billion parking spots in the United States?
Lauren Goode: Yeah, wild.
Gideon Lichfield: Four spots for each car? That’s crazy. I mean, how inefficient is that.
Lauren Goode: Like if you had a social network just for parking spaces, it would compete with Facebook.
Gideon Lichfield: If you had a social network for parking spaces, that might solve the parking problem.[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: Would it? People tend to get pretty toxic on social networks.
Gideon Lichfield: Well, I just meant like a social network where you can identify where parking—maybe it’s not a social network, but an app where you can identify where parking spaces are available. Didn’t somebody try to build one of these once?
Lauren Goode: I have used it, I forget what it’s called right now, but I’ve used it to park at Warriors games here over by the Chase Center.
Gideon Lichfield: And does it work?
Lauren Goode: It was pretty useful.
Gideon Lichfield: OK. But anyway, I think this conversation just brought home to me again the stereotype that I have of America as a Brit, that it’s the land of the car and it is completely in hook to this machine. But that’s the thing that also from Britain you don’t really see and don’t really appreciate until you spend time here, is just the vast scale of the country and why it’s so necessary for so many people to have cars, and hence the parking problem.
Lauren Goode: What was the car situation like when you were growing up in the UK? Did people around you—like did families have more than one car?
Gideon Lichfield: I grew up in London, which is a city a lot like New York, in that not everybody has a car, but I certainly didn’t get the sense that most people I knew had more than one car. I thought it was interesting that Henry said he’s not anti-car, which maybe is what you would say when you are trying to sell a book about parking to as many people as possible. But he also described people as prisoners of the system, like they’re forced into having cars, because in so many places there isn’t a good alternative. Do you think that’s the case here, at least in the US? Does this conversation change how you feel about your car?
Lauren Goode: There are large swaths of the United States that are much more rural areas that do not offer good public transit and people hold down jobs that sometimes require them to be in a vehicle, sometimes a large vehicle.
Gideon Lichfield: But not just rural areas, there are lots of cities that have pretty poor public transit. And unless you happen to live on one of the right lines, you might just not be able to get anywhere without a car.
Lauren Goode: Right. I think there’s a reason why I lived in New York City for 10 years and I did not have a car while I was there. I technically owned a car, but I kept it in the suburbs at my parents’ place.
Gideon Lichfield: Whereas here in San Francisco, you have one.
Lauren Goode: I keep a car. Yeah. And I realize that I’m part of the problem, but I feel very attached to my car. And I think, I mean I would not discount how many Americans really like cars. In the same way that you like your motorcycle, even though it may not make total sense. And I really hope you’re wearing a helmet and protecting your noggin. I’m just gonna say that.[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: OK, great. But people like in America, we fetishize cars in some instances, and so I think you marry that with the fact that some people knew them for their work, and I think we’re always gonna have some presence of cars.
Gideon Lichfield: A car makes a lot more sense than a motorcycle. Did the conversation with Henry change anything in the way that you feel about your car?
Lauren Goode: It made me think a lot about the public transit systems in our cities and how … We talked a lot about Shoupism, which he covers in his book, and how I really do think we need to start considering ways that we can take some of the money that may come from people paying for parking and funnel that directly into improving public transit systems. It just seems so crucial. And even if someone does live in a remote area, there are people who travel two hours to commute into the Bay Area, and there may not be a train as far, but a good bus system. It just made me feel like we really as a nation, but particularly in cities, need to recommit to bettering our public transit systems if we’re gonna build better cities of the future.
Gideon Lichfield: He mentioned this thing that had never occured to me before: the externalities of free parking—like you don’t even think about what the costs of something being free are.
He really made me think about the economics of how this all interacts when you don’t charge people, what’s the cost of not charging people. And to your point therefore, what could we do with the money if we did charge people in a sensible way. But then as he also said, the trade-off there is once you start charging people for parking, you’re creating inequities because the people that can afford it are more likely to use that, to use those parking spaces.
Lauren Goode: And let’s not forget that some people live in their cars. That is a reality in the Bay Area. When I lived down in Palo Alto, I used to see directly across the street from one of the most expensive gym franchises in the United States, people lined up along El Camino Real living in their mobile homes and cars. And that’s a reality for some people.
Gideon Lichfield: I also thought it was interesting that Henry said that parking arguments aren’t political.
Lauren Goode: Yes.
Gideon Lichfield: I would have expected liberals to be more anti-parking, conservatives to be more pro-parking. Does that track with what you think?
Lauren Goode: I mean, that surprised me as well, and he immediately said it’s not a red or blue thing. But to me, it runs right along the tracks with NIMBYism and anti-density housing activists and people who just have these strong beliefs about where things should be dense and where they should be open and accessible to them without allowing other people to sort of encroach on their space. I think this is an inherently political issue. I mean, do you think it’s possible to have a conversation about parking that is not political?
Gideon Lichfield: I mean, is it possible to have a conversation about anything here that is not political?
Lauren Goode: I suppose not, this is the world we live in now.
Gideon Lichfield: Henry was really bullish on electric bikes, almost like these could save us from the curse of the car because they allow people to get done so much in it that you previously could only do with a car. I have to say, for me, electric bikes are a little terrifying ’cause I ride a non-electric bike and I feel like I’m gonna be mowed down by all of these delivery cyclists on their juggernaut electric bicycles.[Chuckle]
Gideon Lichfield: How do you feel a city has to change if we have a lot more electric bikes and fewer cars?
Lauren Goode: Are you saying that you feel terrified when you’re on your acoustic bike?
Gideon Lichfield: On my acoustic bike, that’s right. [chuckle]
Lauren Goode: Yeah, I could see that. Electric bikes seem like they could be a great solution. They’re more sustainable in that they don’t use fuel. I think that they introduce some new problems, primarily the recyclability or reusability of them. And I think that there have to be new rules and regulations introduced the cities in order to make that a safe experience, because they go pretty fast, but they don’t go highway fast. And you’re not riding them in the car lane, but then you could mow over poor Gideon here in the regular bike lane.[Chuckle]
Gideon Lichfield: Right. Bike lines in New York City have become this kind of two-wheel Hunger Games.[Chuckle]
Gideon Lichfield: Because you have acoustic bikes like me, you have electric bikes zooming past you, you have people on scooters, you have people on skateboards, you have sometimes people on electric wheelchairs, often you have people going in the opposite direction to which the bike lane is actually supposed to flow. Everybody is racing to beat the traffic lights. I have never felt as unsafe on my bicycle in New York as I have in the last couple of years because of the sheer number of different kinds of vehicles that are now using the bike lanes.
Lauren Goode: And that’s really unfortunate, because you are a person who, despite your motorcycle, is really progressive about such things. You are not a car owner, you are not taking up parking spots. You ride your bike everywhere. I see it here, like you come in from Berkeley on your bike, but you also use BART.[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: Yes. And so if you’re the person who says, “You know what? I’m a little bit afraid to get out there and use this form of transportation,” which is generally better for everyone, then we have a problem.
Gideon Lichfield: Well, I think the question therefore is, do you need to restructure cities even more? Is that even possible?
Lauren Goode: It seems like a relatively small ask, even though I realize it’s still a big one, to try to re-map bike lanes so that cities can become a little bit more transit-friendly in that way. It seems like a much bigger deal to say, “You know what? Urban planners decades ago decided that every new building should have a minimum parking requirement.” That seems like a much harder problem to solve. I don’t see how that happens quickly.
Gideon Lichfield: This makes me think a little bit of conversations that I have in another context, which are about reinventing democracy. This idea that our countries are run on systems of governance that were invented three centuries ago, that are now having to cope in the modern world, but you can’t just tear up the systems of governance and start again. And in the same way, I feel like it would be interesting to tear up cities and start again. But there’s no way we can do it.
Lauren Goode: This seems like a problem that has to be attacked from both sides, which is that we have to change our relationship to cars and our dependence on them, and we also have to get support and subsidies for using alternative forms of transportation. The money that we put into parking should be better allocated or funneled more into building better transit systems, and then the parking, the city planning, the infrastructure needs to be rethought entirely. And so on that platform, I am running for mayor of—I’m just kidding, I’m really not.[Chuckle]
Lauren Goode: It’s a tough job. Also, if you want to hear from the real mayor, we interviewed her in the first episode of this podcast.
Gideon Lichfield: Yes we did. I’m curious about Henry’s concept of the right to the city. I don’t know if I would call it a right, but cities are a much more durable than countries, right? Our older cities are thousands of years old. And as national borders shift back and forth, cities remain. Because cities rather than countries are really the locus of economic activity, of industry, of cultural movements.
Lauren Goode: Right. They’re the social and cultural capitals of a place.
Gideon Lichfield: And Henry says there’s a kind of magic that happens when large groups of people live together in an urban area, and that’s undeniable. So I think if there is a right to the city, it’s the right to be able to be part of that thing that exists. And to bring it all the way back to parking, how you get into the city and how you move around in it, is a fundamental question of access. So maybe in that sense, I’m starting to believe that parking matters after all.[Music]
Gideon Lichfield: That’s our show for today. Thank you for listening. Have a Nice Future is
hosted by me, Gideon Lichfield.
Lauren Goode: And me, Lauren Goode. If you like the show, you should tell us. Leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts. And don’t forget to subscribe so you can get new episodes each week.
Gideon Lichfield: You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what you’re worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we’ll try to answer them with our guests.
Lauren Goode: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Arevalo. Our engineer is Benjamin Frisch.
Gideon Lichfield: See you back here next Wednesday. And until then, have a nice future.[Music]
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