What If We Got Rid of All the Parking Lots in the SF Bay Area?

For one: There would be enough space left to create 60 public greenspaces the size of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

It’s been over a month since my Prius was stripped of its catalytic converter. The part is *at least* a few months out because people are assholes and stealing these at a dizzying, maddening, unrelenting rate. By proxy, I’m effectively now car-free… sans the few times a week when I force the engine into a lion’s roar and move the car a few blocks.

My relationship with car ownership has never been more forced — honed in, zoomed out, dissected. I grew up around cars; I was born in the suburbs of North Texas, after all. And over my three decades on this mortal coil, I’ve owned seven vehicles… half of which were totaled by either an act from a Higher Power or a no-fault accident. 

My adult life has, thus far, been shackled by registration fees and pink title slips. It’s a product of habit and upbringing, as opposed to one born of necessity if I’m to be honest. 

Though I only drive my Prius a few hundred miles a month since living in San Francisco, I still own it. I walk everywhere; I take public transport elsewhere; I drive almost nowhere. Yet, I cling to this car like I do my morning espressos.

Alas, when one’s car is rendered undrivable, other means of transportation must be adopted. Or in my case: a humbling realization of how little driving has factored into my daily life now in my 30s.

It was at this Oprah aha moment that I serendipitously came across a tweet by SF Bay Area transit enthusiast and self-described stan of modern-day pop icons Hayden Clarkin that explained just how much land mass all of the surface parking lots occupy in the SF Bay Area’s nine counties.

No surprise here: It’s a lot. Like… an almost unfathomable amount. Read: You could fit two San Francisco-sized cities in the space populated by above-ground parking areas in the Bay Area.

“The land dedicated to parking in the 9-county Bay Area is large enough to fit the city of San Francisco twice,” reads the tweet authored by Clarkin. In San Francisco alone, there are 634,000 parking spaces — while there are just over 400,000 registered vehicles in the city.


If we are for a second to dissociate and enter into a car-free plane of existence, the space we could free up in the Bay Area that would otherwise be occupied by (mostly empty) parking spots could help us comfortably accommodate millions more residents. Clarkin notes at the Bay Area’s current median density figures, “2 million more residents” could be added. But what if we adopted, say Barcelona’s density? “You could add 4.375 million more [residents],” he figures.

The data used to extrapolate these hypotheticals was first published by San Jose State University in a paper titled “Inventorying San Francisco Bay Area Parking Spaces: Technical Report Describing Objectives, Methods, and Results.” And a quick glance through the study shows just how odious and inflated many parking lots in the Bay Area are.

Take for example the Oakland Coliseum: 81% of the acreage for the sports venue is dedicated solely to parking vehicles.

That’s insane.

The study further waxed on this unnecessary surplus of parking, noting that there’s “2.6 times” more available parking than necessary in the SF Bay Area, given the data authors collected: “Assuming that the 6.2 million automobiles and light-duty trucks registered in the Bay Area spend 95% of their time parked (Shoup, 2014), then at any given time on average there are 5.9 vehicles that need to be parked. With 15 million spaces, the average utilization rate is 39%. This implies that there is 2.6 times as much parking available across the region than needed.”

But moreover: This unnecessary parking is exacerbating the climate crisis. Sparsely occupied surface-level parking can add to what’s known as the “urban heat island effect” — the phenomena of the sun’s infrared (heat) waves becoming trapped by dense materials like concrete and pavement, which can raise local temperatures by as much as 37.4 °Fahrenheit in some metros. (We’re looking at you, Phoenix.) As the planet continues to warm, this uniquely human problem will only get worse.

Granted, the speculative housing that would replace dedicated surface parking lots would also add to the affronted effect. But unlike parking spots, proven mitigation techniques — utilizing green roofs, installing solar-reflective wall panels, capturing sunlight by way of solar panel installations, etc. — could be implemented on those structures that would drive down the urban heat island effect.

Then there’s always the dream to return that land to Mother Nature; it would be enough land to create 60 massive public parks, all of which would be the size of Golden Gate Park.

In the study’s conclusion, the authors wax that “by establishing spatially explicit parking supply baselines for the Bay Area, new insights will hopefully be created towards rethinking urban space for future challenges.”

Now that’s a forthcoming utopia we’d very much like to pay rent in.

Feature image: Courtesy of Flickr via Ron Reiring, edits by author

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