Imagine you could wave a magic wand and transform every perpetually empty parking spot in your neighborhood into something useful.
It’s a fantasy that’s haunted the imaginations of urbanists for decades as car storage has gobbled up more and more of our scarce urban land — and in the process, pushed the jobs, businesses and services on which we rely further and further from our homes, forcing Americans to increasingly rely on driving. In 2018, the United States had an estimated two billion parking spots, which collectively constitute a land area only slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. That’s roughly seven spots for every car on the road today; in ultra car-dependent places like Jackson, Wyo., that ratio is closer to 27 to one.
And all that excess car storage isn’t always a good investment — for commercial lot owners or the public good. Stories of $82,000-a-year parking spots in expensive cities like San Francisco are an extreme outlier in an industry that sometimes struggles to keep lots full outside of peak demand times like special events, or to sell pricey monthly passes to commuters who are happy to opt for underpriced public parking spaces instead. When COVID-19 cancelled the commutes of 20 percent of the U.S. workforce, the business got even tougher — so much so that even industry boosters expect profits to plateau or decline as soon as 2022.
And even as commercial lots shutter, cities are still hellbent on building more. Despite pressure from advocates, most cities require developers to adhere to strict mandatory parking minimums that increase our national supply of underutilized car storage every year.
Miami-based start up REEF Technology made headlines last month when it raised $700 million towards a bold promise to disrupt that status quo: by buying up parking lots and underutilized spaces across the country, and rapidly transforming them into a range of better (and more profitable) things. The deal promises to more than double the company’s inventory of 1.3 million parking spaces and weave their vision for a parking-light city more deeply into the urban fabric of communities across North America and Europe; REEF says its holdings are already located in close proximity to more than 70 percent of Americans who live in urban areas, though few likely know it.
“Ultimately, we believe that cities are magic when you can work, live, play and grow within a short walk or bike of where you live,” said Padden Murphy, head of communications and and public affairs for the company. “We look at things like parking lots and garages less like car storage, and more like embedded urban infrastructure that can offer us proximity to anything we need — and if you can put the right products and services in those spaces, you can truly make a city into a place for people, instead of cars.”