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Depaving America: What It Means For Businesses And Residential Spaces

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A Sustainable Solution?

“There are some areas where, actually, the number of square feet of asphalt in a city probably should go down…” Although it was just a passing comment made by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at the Bloomberg CityLab summit, depaving roads isn’t actually a new idea. Over the years, countless climate activists have discussed how fewer miles of road and asphalt could have a positive impact on our environment, including making space for sustainable modes of transportation, decreasing the temperatures in cities and reducing water pollution. And as the U.S. enters a new era, with a renewed focus on mitigating climate change, it’s an appropriate time to start discussing new solutions to the climate crisis, including depaving cities. But what does depaving cities look like in the real world? And how will it impact our cities?

Depaving America’s Infrastructure

First, let’s look at the current state of roads, parking, and pavement in the U.S. Currently, there are around 4.09 million miles of paved roadways. In 2014, $207 billion was spent on operation and maintenance of these roads. There are also 250 million parking spots in the U.S. In 2020, there were 286.9 million registered cars in the U.S. Although there is clearly not enough parking for every car, parking may also not be distributed properly to where it’s needed. For example, in New York City, it’s notoriously difficult to find parking. On the other hand, commercial property has a higher required minimum of parking spots than any other kind of property. It is also likely to exceed the minimum number of parking spaces as to not force shoppers away. Depaving America will likely start with parking lots, with the space from these being used to build grocery stores, housing, parks, and other important infrastructure to help cities flourish. That means that — with more cars on the road every year and a distrust in public transit forcing commuters into cars — parking spaces will be at a premium. Places that have underground parking and parking garages will be lucky, as their spots won’t be reduced. And this puts many businesses, commercial property owners, and multifamily housing owners at a significant advantage. In city centers, most people don’t own cars. Instead, parking in multifamily buildings remains empty as commuters and visitors fight for street parking. As parking is further reduced, parking will be at a premium. For property owners that have parking, they will be able to use these unused parking spaces as another source of income. Businesses and multifamily housing will be able to rent out the parking spaces on an hourly or monthly basis for those that need the space.

Encouraging Alternatives

Although one may expect that depaving roads will increase traffic congestion, the theory is that it will allow for alternate forms of transportation, such as increased space to walk or bike. It’s also expected to reduce demand for car travel. This will, in turn, reduce traffic congestion. Finally, it can also reduce maintenance costs, even if these paved roads are just turned into gravel roads. This can free up government money to be spent on other infrastructure projects. Again, it will likely reduce on-street parking in city centers, which means that business will need to get creative to attract shoppers. This could include partnering with nearby buildings that do have parking and renting some of their spaces for shoppers. It is very likely that depaving America is still a long way off, but it’s something that cities and businesses should already start considering. For one, based on Buttigieg’s background and the current U.S. administration’s goals, this may not be as far in the future as we expect. South Bend, where Buttigieg was the former mayor, actually used depaving to revitalize the downtown core. In order to transition successfully to having less asphalt on our roads, cities and businesses will need to collaborate to ensure that cities are still accessible for drivers and commuters.

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