Between Thanksgiving activities, the Frontrunner free ride day, and a couple of job interviews, I’ve recently spent a considerable amount of time wandering around downtown Salt Lake City. And I’ve been astounded at how much parking there is. It seems like every time I look up I’m staring at a high rise parking structure.
Curious to know more, I eventually found the Salt Lake Tourist and Visitors Center website and learned that “there are over 32,000 parking spaces in downtown Salt Lake City.” That’s incredible.
By comparison, I’ve been told that Provo has between 3,000-4,000 parking spaces in downtown. (The mayor’s blog includes some parking information, but the only source I could find was this mapquest page for the convention center. That’s not very authoritative, but 3,000 spaces is a fairly common number I’ve heard mentioned around the city.)
It’s helpful to put these numbers in context. The 2011 population of Salt Lake City was (a surprisingly small) 189,899. That means that with more than 32,000 parking spaces there is essentially one spot for every six people in the city.
By contrast, Provo’s population was 115,321* in 2011. If downtown Provo has 4,000 spaces, that means there is roughly one spot for every 29 people.
Some shop owners may look at these figures and see a need to add more parking to downtown Provo. If there was more parking, the reasoning goes, there would be more people.
But I strongly disagree.
What I see in these figures is a massive amount of wasted space in Salt Lake that will hamstring that city’s long-term vitality. Consider, for example, that every parking space occupies land that could otherwise be housing, offices, or retail, all of which generate various forms of tax revenue. Higher density also increases the number of consumers in an area — as well as a city’s productivity — while parking inherently decreases density by using space that could have been occupied by people. In other words, much as a previous post argued, shop owners should want more buildings for people and few parking spaces.
And apparently, that’s what Provo has. This document from Wasatch Choice 2040 also explains that putting parking in structures — as is the case in downtown Salt Lake City — dramatically increases the cost of development. That means a smaller and more homogenous demographic ends up living in downtown. So again, less parking per person in Provo turns out to be an advantage.
Back in June, I argued that having empty parking spaces is like leaving the lights on in an empty room; it wastes space and costs everyone money. Salt Lake is a perfect example of this phenomenon. According to the census, the average household size in Utah is only 3.10 people. That means there is roughly one downtown space for every two households in Salt Lake City. What are the odds that 50 percent of the Salt Lake City’s households will suddenly and simultaneously drive into downtown? That simply will never happen and even taking into account tourism and the larger metro area, there is still too much parking.
The same is probably true in Provo, but on a vastly smaller scale. New housing projects are also going to be using existing parking, meaning Provo will continue to capitalize on this advantage.
Walking through these two cities its apparent that Provo still needs to harness its potential. But long term, I think less parking and more buildings (or potential for buildings) will be an advantage.
*Sometimes I think we forget that the difference in population between Salt Lake City and Provo is actually not as big as it seems.