Choosing to Build Two Parking Spaces or Two Bedrooms Shouldn’t Be Difficult

The choice is stark: storage for cars or homes for people? The image below lays it out nicely, to scale. Two parking spaces take up as much area as a small two-bedroom apartment. That’s large enough for a young professional, a married couple, or even parents with children depending on their needs and wants. So do we choose to provide space for two empty cars or four people? What if we ask which pays more income and property taxes, two empty cars or one young professional? Which supports more local businesses by eating out and shopping nearby, two empty cars or a married couple? Which creates a greater sense of community—waving hello while walking the dog, talking to friends at the grocery store, or playing in the park—two empty cars or a family?

Every time we choose to build storage for cars instead of homes for people there’s a second choice we’re explicitly making. We’re not only choosing to build parking, we’re also choosing not to build housing. That’s an important thing to remember. It’s not just the cost of adding parking, which is significant, it’s also the loss of new neighbors, the loss of the opportunity for people to obtain housing, the loss of tax revenue that could support more parks and better sidewalks, the loss of potential customers for local businesses.

The moral argument would ask whether two empty cars have a greater right to the limited space available in the city than two people. The social argument would ask whether two empty cars provide more energy, community, and dynamism to the city than two people. The fiscal argument would ask whether two empty cars provide more tax base to the city than two people. I ask why this is even a debate?

The things we choose to build inform who it is we’re trying to be. Are we trying to be a city that can pay its bills by inviting more people to join us and make Denver a better place, or do we choose to be a city that struggles to keep up because so much space is devoted to unproductive parking? Are we trying to be a city of restaurants, clothing shops, doctors’ offices, and grocery stores, or do we choose to be a city of parking lots? Are we trying to be a community made up of people or parking spaces? It’s our choice, Denver.

Image courtesy of Victoria Transport Policy Institute and Graphing Parking.

By | 2017-02-21T13:09:57+00:00 December 31, 2016|Categories: Advocacy, Attainable Housing, Sustainability, YIMBY Denver|Tags: , |13 Comments


  1. Tony December 31, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    Great article John! This is a very obvious and logically sound argument for density that often gets overlooked. You should submit this to the Denver Post, Westword, and any other media. This simple and straightforward message should be distributed much farther than the echo chamber here.

  2. Frank Locantore January 1, 2017 at 12:47 am

    You’re a straight shooter, John. Thanks for laying this out so well.

  3. Overload in CO January 2, 2017 at 6:43 am

    Why not all of the above? Why not put the people above the parking? Put the parking above the restaurants? It’s not like there’s a shortage of vertical space. Look how few building in Denver are taller than 50 stories! Our towers are to short.

    • Ryan Keeney January 5, 2017 at 7:46 pm

      Structured parking is very expensive. It is on the order of tens of thousands of dollars per space to build.

      • James January 9, 2017 at 9:20 pm

        Where are you getting that figure from? Underground parking cost varies by city (geographic/soil variables play a huge role) and while it usually is fairly expensive, a parking structure either covered, or underground, is usually a viable design for most market-rate urban housing being built in cities across the country. Developers know that based on demand, if people cannot park easily, their property is less desirable than comparable property where it is. Especially in Denver where the weather can be volatile and hail damage is a serious factor, I am never going to choose an apartment where I cannot have a protected, covered parking spot. I can afford it and am going to pay for it – while there are many that can’t and some that won’t, those who can afford to live downtown and are willing to pay a premium for it will likely have a car, and if they can’t park conveniently, they will go elsewhere.

    • John R January 6, 2017 at 2:51 am

      Let’s say we did that, and built a thousand parking spaces for a thousand units above them. What happens when all those people get in their cars? Where do they fit on the street? Better to build without parking and this encourage a car-free lifestyle and the surrounding development to support it.

    • TakeFive January 10, 2017 at 8:18 pm

      Exactly, consider that few developers in DUS and other closest in areas are even building to the density that they are allowed, even with parking.

      The other important question is where exactly are we talking about? Should this apply to historical areas with their existing wonderful early 20th century structures that really define the neighborhood? Would Denver be well-served by scraping these delightful properties and replacing them with shiny (when new) tenement developments? BTW, I’m ALL FOR (more) affordable housing but at what destructive cost? Perhaps… be careful what you wish for?

  4. Mike Z January 2, 2017 at 11:23 pm

    Spot on!
    Auto- or people- …centric?
    There appears to be a “love affair” with the auto, let’s change that.

  5. Today’s Headlines – Streetsblog Denver January 3, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    […] The Human Needs We Ignore When We Prioritize Storing Empty Cars (DenverUrbanism) […]

  6. Casey January 4, 2017 at 1:16 am

    Denver isn’t there yet and not connected enough. Public transportation is better than it was, but with all the transfers it is actually hard to get from most point As to point Bs. It would be great if affordable housing was closer to small grocery stores or near where people worked. Until that time, people need cars

    • John R January 6, 2017 at 2:54 am

      This isn’t a problem of connection by transit but of distance to needs. We’ve zoned a lot of Denver in such a way that you couldn’t walk to the grocery store even if you wanted to. The way to change that is to stop subsidizing car use and start building the density (and mixed use neighborhoods) needed to support local grocers.

      • TakeFive January 10, 2017 at 8:42 pm

        “subsidizing car use” is one of those “talking points” that irritates. Residents/people vote to be taxed for services and infrastructure that they want/expect. Planners take their cue from what people want and are willing to pay for. Can things change? Yes, of course. Attitudes are changing and will change more over time. I guess partly I don’t care for the “good versus evil” meme. Reminds me too much of the once awful “Family Values” propaganda from the right.

  7. James January 6, 2017 at 12:01 am

    Transit is getting better, but we are not at the point where the majority of people in Denver who can afford to commute and travel the way they want will be choosing transit exclusively – it is not convenient for most people in the region unless they are those who happen to work AND live close to a convenient station. For most people, driving is by far the most efficient way to go about their day and even with another couple billion invested in a FasTracks 2 with rail extensions, a streetcar network, BRT…the way Denver has grown for the past 50 years means most people who can afford to drive, at least for some trips, will. To me, what you are describing is an ideal that is not yet possible given the way people in the region live.

    I think the reasonable goal for the next 25 years is to assume that Denver residents, even the more progressive ones who might like to commute with transit, will still likely own a car – most of those who love the outdoors need one to get where they want to go. For many, the entire reason they live in Denver is so they can DRIVE to the mountains on the weekend. I agree that for sustainable growth we want people to drive less, but I think we are kidding ourselves if we think the middle-upper/middle class residents, say a 28yo couple will not have at least one car. An outdoorsy couple, especially those with kids, will certainly have at least one car if they can afford it. If you build housing without the ability for them to park conveniently, they will not choose to live there – they will choose housing where they can park AND take transit if their work is located in a place where this is feasible.

    I see the same issue with the anti-car, no parking think tanks like Seattle Subway and Seattle Transit Blog. Driving less should be our goal, but Americans are going to want cars for the convenience of going places transit doesn’t. We are not going to run busses and trains to every ski resort, every 14’er, every athletic location, etc. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can simply undo the way people commute nowadays simply by building trying to ignore cars. Even the most progressive of urbanites and transit advocates own cars, we need to design housing for people, not a utopia where the last 50 years didn’t happen. If we are not realistic, we will not be successful. Build taller buildings, build parking garages.

Comments are closed.