In the United States, there are simply too many places to park. In fact, there may be as many as eight parking spaces for every car. "Parking is the single biggest land use in any city," claims Donald Shoup, a professor of Urban Studies at UCLA. Surveys of parking spaces show that there are somewhere between 100 million and 2 billion parking spaces in the U.S. alone.
A recent study found that parking spaces may be just as environmentally harmful as the cars that fill them. "The level of parking spaces shows the level of commitment to the automobile as a transportation mode," Mikhail Chester, lead author of a study from UC Berkeley on parking spaces, told PRI's Here and Now. He argues that empty parking spaces provide an incentive for people to drive instead of taking more environmentally efficient choices like public transportation.
It takes a lot of energy to create a parking space, including the creation and transportation of asphalt. The asphalt also traps heat, which artificially raises the temperature of cities. This, in turn, "puts an additional load on buildings to increase air conditioning," says Chester. Water runoff due to paved surfaces has shown to dramatically affect water environments near cities. The parking spots can also lead to more dangerous gasses like sulfur dioxide.
Chester acknowledges that people are going to keep building parking spaces. In the future, however, he suggests a more thoughtful approach to parking. "Can we use materials that have lower impacts?" Chester asks, "Can we use processes in laying the asphalt down that have lower impacts?" Many environmentalists hope so.
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