Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Earth Notes: For Parking, There’s No Free Pass

Peter Friederici

From the Monopoly board to the suburban mall, free parking is one of those American ideals that no one can get enough of. Or so it seems. But in fact parking doesn’t come free, even when there’s no meter or permit requirement in sight.

It costs an estimated $5,000 in construction costs just to build an off-street parking space—and that doesn’t account for the value of the land it’s built on. Nor does it account for the environmental cost of providing parking.

That bill includes the “heat island” effect that residents of southwestern cities know all too well. Because concrete and pavement retain heat better than soil and vegetation do, nighttime temperatures in the sprawling Phoenix area have risen more than 10 degrees in the last 40 years.

That results in public health impacts, a greater need for air conditioning—and nighttime misery. And paving the ground also makes urban flooding worse.

But even providing parking in the first place poses costs. The greenhouse gas emissions produced when asphalt and concrete are manufactured add another 10 percent to the emissions cars themselves produce. Manufacturing those materials produces sulfur dioxide and small particulates that can cause respiratory problems.

Because we often don’t pay directly for parking, these effects add up to a huge subsidy—a figure that’s been estimated at more than $125 billion a year in the U.S. In the short term, drivers benefit—but in the long term, we’re all stuck with the bill of environmental and health costs.

Peter Friederici is a writer whose articles, essays, and books focus primarily on connections between humans and their natural surroundings. His most recent book is Beyond Climate Breakdown: Envisioning New Stories of Radical Hope (MIT Press, 2022). He also teaches classes in science communication and sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University.

Related Content