The parking lot question

The discussion about sustainability was inspired by a recent presentation of two large-scale urban projects in Switzerland. The investors’ goal is to create officially certified, sustainable areas; their main strategies to achieve this includes: short home – office distances, good public transport system, use of renewable energy sources, increased bicycle parking places and a reduced number of car parking spots per number of flats (approximately 1 spot per 4 or 5 apartments). The latter left me rather perplexed. I can understand this measure i.e. as an effort to reduce traffic load in a city centre – I have seen this function and it is rather effective. However, is it our goal to restrict car usage all together? and consequently also air travel, boat travel, and all motor-driven travel in a bulk? Does this make our lives more sustainable? Personally, this strikes me as stepping back in time. When a technological application has harmful side effects, do we ban it all together, or do we try to improve and solve the problem?

According to statistics from 2008, Swiss vehicles per capita amount to 562 per 1000 people [“Energy, transport and environment indicators – eurostat Pocketbooks”. Eurostat. 2010 edition]; more than half of the Swiss citizens own a car, a number which has very likely risen even more in the last 4 years. Out of intuition I would say that car owners would simply not consider relocating into developments that offer no car parking possibilities. Alternatively, they would find different parking solutions, in a car park or street nearby (while depending on the culture, the measure could simply lead to illegal parking when applied to other countries). In the latter case, the creation of one sustainable area would mean the overload and probable deterioration of another and therefore no particular improvement in the overall sustainability of the larger urban agglomeration. On the other hand, in the case that car owners simply choose not to live in such developments, eventually we create a re-shuffling of the population, again without an improvement in the overall sustainability. The measure can have a positive effect, in preventing existing residents from purchasing (more) cars, thereby contributing to a deceleration of the (currently increasing) trend of car use and purchase in general (registration of new cars has gone up by ~11.5% in 2010-2011 []). This may not decrease the current energy consumption, but it does help stabilize it.

In general, a definition of “what is sustainable and for whom” is required. Faced with a problem as universal as global warming, how much sense does it make to try and fight it with measures as local as “less parking space in one new development”?

Dr. Sofia Georgakopoulou, iA, ETHZ