Los Angeles has a reputation of being dominated by cars, and residents and visitors pay the price as its congestion is the worst in the world.
While brainstorming how people can get around the region without cars, city planners are also looking at space like surface parking lots and asking what can be done with such space to alleviate issues such as the housing affordability crisis. It comes with the nature of how mobility is changing, thanks to ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles (AVs), which do not require as much parking.
Housing developments have traditionally been required to provide two parking spaces for every residential unit built on a property, or one space for every 100 square feet of floor space, in rules set down in the late 1940s. But there is a movement afoot to ease those regulations.
At the LA CoMotion Leadership Conference in Los Angeles earlier this month, architecture firm Woods Bagot unveiled its MORE LA initiative, which looks to “transform parking to places." The firm explored what could happen in three districts — downtown, East Los Angeles and Inglewood, CA — if parking requirements were sharply reduced or eliminated, and the surface parking lots could be used for other things.
Smart Cities Dive caught up with architect James Sanders, who consults for Woods Bagot as the global chair of its design council, to learn more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
SMART CITIES DIVE: Why do this? What did you learn from this study?
JAMES SANDERS: Transit, Uber, Lyft, AVs, they all share one thing in common: you don't need to park your car. So what does that mean? What could happen if we could begin to recoup some of this vast inventory that has been given over to the storage of unused cars?
We set ourselves the task of doing that in two different ways. One is using a group that sits within Woods Bagot called SuperSpace, which is an advanced data and mapping group. We decided to for the very first time very precisely map the amount of surface parking that is in the city. We did that and came up with some astonishing numbers of the square mileage. That's impressive enough, and then we began to think about could that space be developed at different density scenarios.
What we came up with was, you could take the parking in the metro area and develop it at prevailing building heights and densities, meaning you're not building skyscrapers, and get housing enough at 50% build-out to add 750,000 new people and at 100% build-out get 1.5 million new people in Los Angeles. That's just taking the land you already have, building it to the densities and heights of the prevailing districts around it.
Then we came up with it in another way. The other part of the issue is, when you build new, you have to meet these extraordinary restrictions. Well, what if you didn't? What if we could imagine building with parking restrictions being zeroed out or sharply reduced?
We looked at three typologies common to Los Angeles: a mid-block area, the boulevard site down the long avenues and a big downtown infill project across multiple blocks. We also associated them with different districts: downtown, Inglewood for the courtyard and East Los Angeles for the boulevard. We picked them because they're geographically separate, socioeconomically diverse and the sites are different. What you see are provocations or propositions, just to get the conversation going and thinking, what extra value could you get if you weren't giving up so much of the land to parking lots?
What issues do an excess of parking lots cause in cities?
SANDERS: When block fronts are taken up with parking, or even auto-related uses, those do not tend to be pedestrian-friendly blocks. Nobody wants to walk by a parking lot. They kill street life and they are dead zones generally since people don't go to them for any other reason than to get their car or drop off their car. They don't have any of the urban energy. In the middle of a city that relies on centers of energy and focus and destinations, and also relies on, to some degree, a pedestrian experience, they are killers.
Then you get to the fact that they also are environmentally wasteful and unsustainable. The notion of giving over so much of the most valuable land where people do want to live and could want to live, and might well be in walking or Uber distance from a Metro station, to give that over to parking is not a city-sustaining venture.
How do you change the mindset of people from being more car-reliant to less?
SANDERS: What's fascinating is that Los Angeles was not always like this. Los Angeles had one of the great public transit systems in the world until 1945; the streetcar system built Los Angeles and people took streetcars on all the major boulevards. As it took decades for the city to move to this complete car orientation, it's going to take decades for it to leave, and to some degree it'll never leave. There will always be people with private cars in private garages in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years.
But in a city the size of Los Angeles or a country the size of the United States, if, let's say, 10% or 15% or 20% of the population began to live a different way, that would have an enormous impact ... Not overnight, but I will say the Uber and Lyft phenomenon has come with remarkable speed. Many people are living a life without a car, and it's perfectly feasible. You don't have to give up anything any more.
How do you change the mindset of the regulators at city hall, who may not want to change the rules?
SANDERS: It's already being thought about. The positive example everybody points to here is that, 10 years ago, it began to be evident there was going to be a market for people living in downtown Los Angeles, and you had these extraordinary old office buildings built between 1905 and 1940, for which the office demand had dropped. There were developers who said they could provide apartments for this new market, except they could not do it with the two-cars-per-unit requirement, because where do you put the garage? They got an exception from the city and zeroed out the parking requirement, and lo and behold there is something like 14,000 of housing in those buildings and a booming downtown. It's become one of the success stories of urban America in the last 10 years. It's gone from a punchline to being one of the most hip places to live in the United States, and a simple change in parking allowed it.
Now they are taking it to the next step, and asking what would happen if they zeroed out the parking requirement for new construction. We're going to have much less demand, we have an enormous existing inventory of parking lots and buildings and garages around, so you only need to walk half a block. If you decide that's OK, it becomes perfectly feasible. That's on the table and I wouldn't be surprised if it passes in the next year or two. It will change the economics of building.