They paved paradise and put up a paradox

I just finished David Owen’s Green Metropolis, the book-length treatment of his 2004 article claiming that New York is the greenest city in America. A full review will have to wait until next week, but if you want a taste of the sort of twisted environmental logic that drives Owen batty, check out this USA Today article on “eco-friendly parking garages“:

> “Green” is the new black in planning, design and construction philosophy, and it’s no different for the parking industry. Parking designers are embracing practices such as using recycled materials, solar panels and energy-saving lighting and turning concrete rooftops into green surfaces to reduce storm-water runoff.

> “Any parking garage nowadays that we’re involved in from a design standpoint balances constraints of a budget with the desire and philosophy of a green building,” says Rich, whose firm designed the Blue Cross Blue Shield garage in downtown Detroit, one of the first parking garages to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council.

You can slap all the grassy roofs, solar panels, and bamboo banisters on a parking garage that you want: it will still be the farthest thing from green, because the environmental impact of garage comes not from its design and construction but from the system of transportation that it enables. One can only imagine the amount of cognitive dissonance the poor architects suffered from when trying to draft LEED standards for parking garages.

> Technology plays a big role: Pay-on-foot kiosks that eliminate fumbling for money at the exit booth, engines running; signs that alert drivers to levels with vacant spots to eliminate the need to circle; systems that allow drivers to pay for parking from their cellphones.

These sound less like green features than convenience features. And convenience is generally a fine thing, except that in this case it necessarily equates with an inducement to drive. How much idling time at the exit booth has to be reduced to negate the effect of even a single extra trip to the parking garage?

The kicker, of course, comes buried at the end:

> There are limits, however, to garages’ eco-consciousness.

> “No matter how green a parking structure is, it still means people are driving, and it’s driving that’s responsible for 30% to 40% of all greenhouse-gas emissions,” Ohland says.

Oh, is that all? But does that figure factor in the new energy-efficient lighting systems being used in our nation’s eco-garages?

There are ways, at least in theory, to make a greener garage, but they have little do with the design of the garage itself and everything to do with the system in which those garages are embedded. For example: getting rid of on-street parking in densely settled areas and charging a lot for garage parking can be a way of tilting transit choices away from cars. Pairing garage parking with an effective mass transit system might also help to move people out of their cars.

In both cases, the design of the garage itself is irrelevant. What matters is placing the garage in a context that makes other choices more convenient than driving. And this concept — inconveniencing drivers — is antithetical to notion of most garages, eco-friendly or otherwise. Take a look at the picture up top. Does that look like a neighborhood you want to walk around?

Author Bio


Comments Disabled

  1. Phoenix Woman - October 14, 2009

    Question: Are parking garages still evil if they hold electric cars? Or is it just individual choice that is evil?

  2. John - October 14, 2009

    You can argue that a garage is not green because it enables driving, but in many cases public transportation just does not work. I have a job that requires me to be at multiple jobsites throughout the day and I could never make it everywhere I need to be by taking public transportation. It is better to do what we can to be “green”, than to do nothing at all.

  3. Adam Stein - October 14, 2009

    Relatedly: are straw men still absurd if they’re made from organic hay?

  4. mynalee johnstone - October 14, 2009

    a prius is NOT a solution.
    In my world, I will only allow electric vehicles.
    Do NOT forget that automobiles ijure more than 2million Americans eacg year. The use of these things creates ENORMOUS stress in our society.And as taxpayers, a huge portion of our funds goes out to support the uses and abuses of automobiles.
    Our world has been designed to facilitate the use of the automobile. Change this, we MUST. Its stupid!

  5. Jake Brown - October 14, 2009

    It’s certainly true that some people need to get to multiple sites throughout the day to do their work.
    But I would guess that the vast majority of workers work at 1-site all day, and then go home after work.
    Public transportation with dense development and strong alternative options (biking, walking) can mean you need to build a much smaller parking garage to accommodate people who really have no choice but to drive.
    Of course, retrofitting many US cities like Phoenix, Dallas, et cetera is completely infeasible. But retrofitting other cities like San Fransisco, Chicago, Portland, and New York has already been successful.

  6. masa - October 14, 2009

    The problem with public transportation many people need to drive to use it. Which usually means you have to park your car near a transit station.
    So, if having a parking garage enables more people to use public transit, then I am all for having greener garages. Then people are paying to use transit as well as paying to park their cars. So, just maybe, the transit system will someday have the funds to expand so those people won’t have to drive.
    So, sometimes parking garages are needed to allow people to be less evil.

  7. Psyche44 - October 14, 2009

    OK eliminating the combustible engine is all fine and dandy. Raising the parking fees and eliminating on street parking is great, except for merchants (their issue), and the one that I truly support, $1-1.50 tax per gallon, (credit applicable)…
    The issues is we have garages and roof tops and other non-natural structures popping out of the ground RIGHT now doing nothing else but sucking in the excess heat and doing nothing for conservation.
    While it is noble to want to eliminate the auto, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. So while building more high rises and parking garages might suck, at least let

  8. Adam Stein - October 14, 2009

    By the way, I do understand that, if you’re going to build a parking garage, putting a green roof on it might be marginally better than not doing so. But the article goes considerably further than this mild claim:
    “The industry…has joined the movement and now is a central player in the push to get people out of their cars.”
    This is…a creative spin on reality. We have way too much underpriced parking as it is, we have way too many zoning laws mandating space be reserved for parking, and until this basic picture changes, there’s no such thing as an eco-garage.

  9. ZA - October 14, 2009

    As Devil’s Advocate, I have to say a ‘green garage’ isn’t inherently wrong – but the scoping of that definition got it very wrong.
    The key functions of a ‘green’ garage should include:
    1. Intermodal connections (where are the bus stop, subway link, pedestrian plazas, and bicycle facilities?)
    2. Reasonable commerce (is there a seasonal farmers or flower market inside the garage? How about longer leases to food, drink, dry cleaning, shoe repair, music, hair, and other key services?)
    3. A significant bicycle footprint, especially in urban areas (where are the long segments of the first floor devoted to secure bicycle parking, with on-site bicycle services?).
    Any design that does not engage the environment and community immediately beyond its property line is a failure.

  10. ZA - October 14, 2009

    If Sao Paolo can do this under similarly sparse conditions for the alternatives to cars, the US can certainly do better.

  11. Lindselove - October 14, 2009

    It takes a huge fight & lots of effort to live w/ less impact in this country because of the standards that our long-term values have created. If we worked fewer hours & decided that we all need less & could live more fully w/ less stimulation & moving around(playing, strengthening relationships) we might have a chance. It’s deeper than just arguing about whether parking garages can be green or not (of course they can’t…it’s not even a question).

  12. RussInSanDiego - October 14, 2009

    “In my world, I will only allow electric vehicles.”
    Electric vehicles are not a solution by themselves, although they may be a step in the right direction. The problem is that electricity is not a fuel. In the United States right now, if you’re using an all-electric vehicle, there’s a 50% probability that you’re burning coal.
    Until we replace fossil carbon fuels with nuclear and renewable energy sources, your electric car is only marginally better than a hybrid, diesel, or conventional automobile.

  13. gatcheson - October 14, 2009

    I agree very much that our environment is too focused on cars to human detriment. But I do not understand how electric cars address that issue. They do reduce emissions at the vehicle and dependence on foreign oil, but it still hurts if a car hits you no matter what powers it! And worst of all, an electric car or prius still demands parking space same as a hummer, driving the dissonance of this article.

  14. Justin - October 14, 2009

    Adam, the article’s point is that people will only take mass transit to their destination if there’s parking where they can board mass transit.
    If you live in NJ and take the train into work, great – you’re still going to need a place to park your car near the train station, unless you live within walking distance (which most people don’t).
    The greener a parking garage can be, the better. The more convenient, the greener (less engine idling time).

  15. Dave - October 15, 2009

    Until parking garages become obsolete, it is certainly better for them to incorporate green technologies like solar panels to generate electricity and to use recycled materials during construction. From a planning perspective, it allows for vertical density rather than sprawling with a much bigger footprint.

  16. mynalee johnstone - October 15, 2009

    Well,lookee here… quite the discussion going on and point your finger at that Phoenix Woman: she started it all.
    I have come to a place in my life, almost a senior, where I cannot tolerate the noise and stink of automobiles. And the stress.
    I,as a citizen trying to do my part, and having spent decades on environmental issues, and protests and blockades and market gardening organic veggies, I, can no longer tolerate all the automobiles. There are too many on the planet. Even tho’ I live on a Island that is considered a rural area, there are over 10,000 automobiles now passing my place from dawn ’til dusk.
    I don’t even want to go outdoors now. The NOISE. The cholking fumes.
    If I could just turn a knob and make the Noise go away.
    Electric cars will be relatively quiet,
    I got myself an electric bike and do all my errands with it.
    For longer trips I use public transit. It is not convenient but I refuse to contribute to the madness. And the ignorance.
    Every driver should have to experience life as a pedestrian or a cyclist before they are able to renew their automonile license.
    uld you leave your children standing beside your running vehicle, or hundreds of running vehicles?
    All that exhaust is going straight out of tailpipes into their little faces.And on up to the parent’s noses, or grandparents’ noses.
    When I visit my little grandchildren in the suburbs I am terrified to cross the several lanes of traffic when the light changes. I worry that we won’t get across in time or that they, the drivers, being so raring to go just might put that pedal to the metal and run us down.Very stressful.
    The rudeness from drivers. The attitudes. Very unChristian, and unBuddhist and antihumanitarian.
    Exhaust is worse than smoking.
    50,000 Americans kill each other or themselves each year with automobiles.
    I am hoping drivers of electric vehicles will be a bit more mindful.
    So, Phoenix Woman, is itindividual choice
    that is evil? I first must ask: what are the choices?
    And who is presenting the choices?
    I also get snarky with all the people working on climate change awareness , driving their hybrids.It doesn’t reduce traffic!And…. parking!

  17. Psyche44 - October 15, 2009

    Uh ya OK short term solution, let

  18. mynalee johnstone - October 15, 2009

    sounds like you drive.
    look: all that possibly listeria infected meat, spinach gets pulled from shelves immediately.
    plastic baby bottles got pulled.
    toys with lead are removed.
    I am saying that automobiles are a threat to my health and everyone elses.
    50,000 deaths a year and over 2 million injuries. That is a public HEALTH problem.
    So why isn’t something done about this as with other things.?

  19. Anonymous - October 15, 2009

    Why does every one say we should drive less, but I have to use my car for xyz.
    The town I live in is full of people who want to tell others what to do. You gotta figure out how to change it. You gotta figure it out. Maybe start with one less car trip per week. Maybe allow enough time for transit/walk/bike. You gotta figure it out, and you gotta get get your neighbors out of their friggin’ cars. What’s with this extravagant lifestyle anyway?

  20. Psyche44 - October 15, 2009

    Look guys it still boils down to the fact that we do have cars.
    Parking lots will be built, so let’s at least make them as green as possible.
    Hybrids still use gas and environmentally unfriendly products, but they are better than that V8 Caddy from the ’70.
    It’s not perfect BUT it’s better than what we have, it is a step forward, and Adam, that is a good thing. What we seem to be getting from you is that if it’s not the total solution, it’s bad…
    It’s a small step in the right direction.
    It’s still greenER than building a new one with out all this new green stuff.

  21. Justin - October 17, 2009

    Hmmm, I got a lot of other comments from Adam and others via the email follow-up feature, but they don’t appear above.
    Anyway, another issue is the marginal impact. If a garage is being built, does it increase the supply of parking enough to influence behavior? If so, can this influence be offset through higher prices? I don’t see why not.

  22. Ray-ray - October 21, 2009

    If your EV is getting charged from a solar panel it is not evel. If it is plugged into acoal fired plant, you are not living in the right place. If your car is an SUV, you are just a victom of adds that brainwash people into getting cars they dont realy need.

  23. Angus - October 25, 2009

    Organic, shamanic.
    Straw men, electric cars – a connection ? Perhaps red herring fits as well. Thanks, Adam
    I wonder how many BART or other train system riders we could “buy” :induce or persuade in some way, for the cost of a parking structure.
    Curiously, the cyclists is this area never seem to complain too much about the lack of parking.