Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What Does a City Lose When It Builds a Parking Lot?

Virtually no modern American community finds itself immune to the issue of parking. From our small town main streets to our big city downtowns, parking is an issue of discussion in village councils, city halls, coffee shops and restaurants. Consistently, car owners (who are not a mere interest group but make up a proportion of Americans tantamount to those who can identify as "women" or "white") advocate for more space for parking so that they can conveniently travel to locations in their communities.

The outcome of this conflict? A 1960 study on parking spaces showed that most major urban areas devote about half of their square mileage to streets and parking spaces. This means that about half of the space in a city is being used to support a transportation system that relies heavily on automobiles. This is space that could be used for a number of different purposes, including public parks, businesses, and especially grocery stores to combat the recent issue of urban food deserts.

Much can be said about the negative side effects of America's car culture. With gas prices skyrocketing and evidence mounting of the health and environmental dangers around fossil fuel usage, there is more than enough good reason to be skeptical of America's automobile addiction. There is also much to be said about the automobile's detraction from walking culture, a trend which has contributed to declining health of our population.

A more neglected casualty of America's car culture is the loss of community that comes from excessive reliance on cars. Someone who drives a car does not have to sit in a train car with others or mix on the thronged and common road with those who are like and unlike them, yet still a part of their community. Automobile culture makes our travel time an extension of our home life, privatizing our commutes and depriving us of an opportunity to engage with our culture and community. It is this sort of engagement with others that helps imbue us with the empathy necessary to engage in shared governance. While cars are a necessity in many cases, building a culture around them can be detrimental to the democratic spirit.

While the automobile is often revered as a tool for freedom for individuals, an unbudging fidelity to it can imprison a community. When a city builds a parking lot, it loses not only a location for a business, but also a locus for the interactions necessary for a healthy democracy.


  1. Let me know if you would rather me not respond to most of your posts - says the really self-conscious Sean.

    This post seems very off-point, to me. Don't mean to start a fight. Cars strike me as more liberating then isolating. Parking lots strike me as more necessity than regrettable.

    Why not complain about the American Dream as a justification for breaking families up into isolated houses and keeping them from their so-called neighbors? No jest - THIS would be a more compelling argument, for me at least.

    Still, cars are basically impractical as is. They would make sense if used far less, shared far more, and meant to be used mostly for adventurous or psychologically healing reasons - NOT necessity. In this line of thought, parking lots would be less necessary, because there would also be less consumerism and driving to work, and there would be more public transit (trains and subways especially). But could such a transition really be possible? What would have to take place in reality prior to transition points? A WHOLE LOT, is the beginning of my answer to those questions.

    ...Otherwise, basically, parking lots are necessary for storage purposes. And, actually, more good than bad (hardly) for consumerism / business. Gotta get people THERE.

    What am I missing?

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