"We like our parking lots!" lawyer and Real Estate Industrial Complex apologist Grady Gammage said a few years ago when the two of us were speaking at an event on the future of Phoenix. And how. I've read that some 43 percent of the city of Phoenix alone is empty land. It would be interesting to know how much of the city is surface parking lots.
I remember when Kenilworth School was surrounded by grass and majestic palm trees. It lost part of that to the monstrous Papago Freeway. More was taken away by parking lots. The consequences are even more telling at North High School. At one time, North boasted a beautiful campus with shade and trees — it was the probably the most attractive campus in the state. By the time I got back in 2000, most of it had been paved over. Similarly, the old city-county building, where my fictional detective David Mapstone has his office, was once an oasis of shade trees and grass. Those were ripped out for "authentic" dirt and palo verdes, and recently the parking lot on the south end of the 1929 building was...expanded.
More than aesthetics are involved. Surface parking lots are a big cause of local warming, which has increased nighttime temperatures some 10 degrees in my lifetime, causing the summers to be hotter and last longer, and turning normal monsoon storms into violent affairs when they collide with the heat being released by all these square miles of asphalt and concrete. The lots destroy the fabric of the city and make walkability and convenience much more problematic. Many sit atop former farmland, which will really matter in a future of food shortages. Take a drive, ride light rail (WBIYB) or pull up Google Earth and look at all the parking lots in Phoenix. Interestingly, most of them are largely empty most of the time.
Believe it or not, Phoenix through the 1950s was a coherent and walkable city. One building sat next to the other and so on. The little A.J. Bayless supermarket at Moreland and Central where my grandmother "traded" had no real parking lot. The parking lots that existed tended to be at the car dealerships around Central and Van Buren, at small shopping centers and at the motels on Grand and Van Buren. They were modest affairs. People parked their cars on the streets. Those streets were narrow and lined with trees and, often, irrigation ditches. A wide street in even 1960s Phoenix was four lanes.
Phoenix was also about 17 square miles in 1950, compared with today's size on par with a New England state. Phoenix came of age with the automobile, suburban sprawl and malls. Everything, especially city "planning," was demoted beneath cars and driving. Sprawl and growth on an industrial scale also produced certain models that were stamped out with dreary sameness. There were some exceptions, such as the old Town and Country shopping center and the pre-remodel Biltmore Fashion Park. But in every case, large surface parking lots proliferated. As buildings were torn down, they were often replaced by even more lots. The proliferation of "auto malls" — and abandoned ones — has added to the vast pavement desert.
In addition to "more land than brains," driving has increased. According to government statistics, in 1969 average annual vehicle trips per household nationally were 1,396 and the average length 8.90 miles. By 2001, this had grown to 2,171 trips averaging 9.87 miles. Households have more cars and the population has grown. Nationally, 74 million cars were registered in 1960; by 2010 the number was a jaw-dropping 251 million. I don't have data, but suspect that per-capita vehicle ownership and trip times in metro Phoenix are very high. One offshoot is the expectation of convenient, "free" parking everywhere.
A less-discussed element in the distorting effect of widespread city mandates requiring parking based on the size of a development. David Shoup of the Cato Institute (!) argues that this policy only encourages more sprawl.
The city of Phoenix has at least tried to be more flexible in parking requirements, although it still uses too much suburban-style zoning. The suburbs are still back in the 1960s. Then there is the phenomenon of gargantuan parking garages, whether behind the towers on Central or the infamous Garage Mahal across from Chase Field. In every case, the city is failing to provide the dense, convenient, non-car-dependent urban centers that are now in such demand.
People say it's hard to park in parts of Seattle. (It's harder than in, say, Gilbert, but not that hard). Suburban developers decry Seattle's "war on cars." In exchange, we get a very convenient, livable city. Phoenix, like most car-dependent cities, made different choices and is paying a heavier price than most.