PEOPLE OVER PARKING

"We have more parking now than we've ever had in the history of downtown Detroit. EVER," says urbanist and public policymaker Francis Grunow. "And it's still not enough."

Herein lies the problem: The combination of surface parking lots, and insufficient transportation alternatives, has created a downtown full of holes and gaps that undermine the walkability and density the city needs to compete globally (not to mention improve public health & environmental quality).

So on a January night in the Motor City, on the eve of the North American International Auto Show, Grunow challenged a full room to think differently.

The inspiration? Donald Shoup's 2011 book The High Cost of Free Parking—which Grunow donated to the Urban Consulate library and promised to buy for any guests who pledged to read. (He swears it's less wonky & more enjoyable than it sounds!) 

Grunow himself has a long history of advocating for transit, walkability and historic preservation in his native city. As former Director of Preservation Detroit, past board member for Transportation Riders United, drafter of the Detroit Declaration and co-founder of the Corridors Alliance (among other initiatives), Grunow is well-known for nudging his hometown toward greater sustainability and a healthier relationship with its chief export, the automobile.

This is personal for Grunow, who believes that cities are society's best hope for figuring out how to best live together in the age of climate change. He shared how he has experienced both wins & losses on this front—including a 2005 lawsuit against the City of Detroit to stop the demolition of the historic Madison-Lenox Hotel.

He lost that fight, and the site remains a surface parking lot to this day.


"The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle is the right to destroy the city." 

—Lewis Mumford, "The Highway and the City" (1964)


So we invited Grunow to speak on Detroit's progress on this front—and where we can push further. His parlor talk was peppered with data, including these alarming superlatives teased in Curbed Detroit:

  • Metro-Detroiters drive further to work than their compatriots in any other American city
  • 40% of land in Downtown Detroit is devoted to parking
  • Downtown has 60,000+ parking spaces—and growing

To put this in context: Grunow points out that 60,000 spaces is almost 7 Empire State Buildings worth of space. What more could Detroit do with that land if we changed our commuting habits?

More affordable housing? Parks & gardens? Other higher, better uses?

After all, when we talk about parking, what we're really talking about is auto storage. "Cars sit 95% of the time," shared Grunow. "How much are we spending for that?"


"Do we think of parking as a privilege or a right? 99% of Americans who drive to work have free parking all day long. That's how much we subsidize parking."

—Francis Grunow


People always complain there's not enough parking—but that happens everywhere, in every city. Grunow shared a study that shows people complain about cars more than anything:

Nation’s Top Consumer Complaints

  1. Auto
  2. Credit/Debt
  3. Home Improvement/Construction
  4. Retail Sales
  5. Utilities

(Source: Consumer Federation of America)

Distance is another deterrent. As a general rule, "people won't walk more than 800 feet from a parking space," explained Grunow, who once worked for the NYC Department of City Planning.

But this is not even close to a problem in Detroit.

To illustrate how Detroit's parking proximity and availability compares to other major cities, Grunow made maps of Urban Consulate event locations in Philadelphia and New Orleans, and counted how many parking spots were within 800 feet. Surprise, surprise—Detroit took the cake.

So what are the culprits?

  • Excessive off-street parking requirements, written into zoning, which Grunow calls "a figment of planners' imaginations."
  • No economic disincentive to curb the dependency.

In fact, the morning after Grunow's talk, the Detroit Free Press delivered a perfect illustration of this in an investigative report on the Ilitches' favorable parking rulings and revenues near the stadiums.


"When we say we want walkable cities, but we continue current policy, there's a high level of cognitive dissonance."

—Francis Grunow


So what can Detroiters do to tip the scales in favor of higher, better land-use? 

  • "A lot of this is education about existing transit & mobility options," says Grunow. "It would cost zero for downtown companies to just pull together & promote what we already have."
  • "Be mindful about how you get around everyday. Using different modes [walking, biking, bus] will help you understand what we have and what we need."

In closing, host Chase Cantrell asked Grunow to describe the "feeling of freedom" he said he experienced living in New York City for a decade without a car.

Grunow said one day it clicked to him: "I could move FORWARD through the city without ever going back. I didn't have to double back to retrieve a car." He was lighter, freer, unencumbered.

To watch the Facebook Live videos of Grunow's parlor talk:

To read more notes & quotes, click here for Twitter thread.

To download his Powerpoint presentations, click the images below:

  Francis Grunow: Detroit Parking - Powerpoint 1 (Click image to download PDF)

Francis Grunow: Detroit Parking - Powerpoint 1 (Click image to download PDF)

  Francis Grunow: Detroit Parking - Powerpoint 2 (  Click image to download PDF)

Francis Grunow: Detroit Parking - Powerpoint 2 (Click image to download PDF)


Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. A 2016 Knight Cities winner, the Consulate has hosted over 150 conversations in Detroit, Philadelphia & New Orleans to bring people together and share ideas for better cities. Follow @UrbanConsulate on FacebookTwitter & Instagram for future events.

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