Costs of parking include big 'environmental footprint'

Crowded parking lot

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, according to the old adage. And there’s no such thing as free parking, either.

Not when you factor in the economic costs, energy consumption and environmental impacts of building and maintaining extensive parking infrastructure on the scale that exists in the United States.

Mikhail Chester offers an accounting of such costs in his research on large infrastructure systems, particularly transportation systems.

He’s trying to provide data that can serve as a reliable guide for public policymakers to devise sustainable solutions to transportation-planning challenges.

Chester is an assistant professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, one of ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

He estimates that there are as many as 844 million parking lot and parking structure spaces in the United States, or roughly three spaces for every automobile. That amounts to paved surfaces for parking covering nearly one percent of the land in the country – an area about the size of West Virginia.

If the area used for curbside parking is added to the count – spaces that go unused most of the time – then there may be as many as 2 billion parking spaces.

Chester examines the cumulative costs and environmental footprint of the country’s parking infrastructure in an article he co-authored with engineering colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley – Arpad Horvath and Samer Madanat – published in the University of California Transportation Center’s ACCESS magazine.

The article is discussed at length in the journal Environmental Research Letters. Some of the data it presents is the basis for a recent article in the New York Times.

The authors look at the costs of parking facilities over their life cycles, considering the resources and energy expended in building and maintaining the infrastructure, as well as the cause-and-effect relationships between parking systems, air pollution, urban congestion, health risks and energy use.

Their studies show that with the amount of certain pollutants resulting from construction and maintenance of parking facilities, the environmental impact is more extensive than that resulting from driving automobiles.

In other recent research, Chester and research partners at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh studied the impacts of automobile emissions in more than 80 metropolitan areas throughout the country. Their results are published in the Journal of the Transportation Research Board.

They estimate the economic costs for treating health impacts of driving and congestion at more than $140 million a day. These costs average to 64 cents per person per day, or 3 cents for every mile traveled.

While the costs of air emissions “are small relative to the overall cost of driving, the total external costs imposed on society [due to environmental impacts] are substantial,” the researchers write.