Meet Thomas Carpenito, Creator of the Parking Lot Map

A surface parking lot filled with cars.

We know parking lots take up too much valuable land in our communities. But how much land, exactly? Parking Reform Network researcher Thomas Carpenito wondered how he could find out — and how he could make that data make sense to people. 

Parking Reform Network: How did you first become interested in parking reform? 

Thomas Carpenito: I started university as an environmentalist and slowly ended it as an urbanist. To me, they became the same. Climate change, deforestation, pollution, etc., were well-known topics that I cared about. But as I finished my degree, I found myself with few stories to tell that people hadn’t already heard. I had pursued a career in environmentalism to teach people about topics that affected them personally, but I found it challenging. They could never see the problem where they were and rarely were able to solve it in their communities. I needed a new cause, one where I could make a difference. That’s when I learned about parking reform.

Everything we know about cities is intuitive. We know a walkable place when we see it, we feel comfortable in a park when we sit in it; and equally important, we know an unwelcoming place when we want to leave it. So when I found out that parking was a problem, the dots began to align perfectly. To make more places we love, we need less parking.

Thomas Carpenito on his bike in NYC
“I was going to map all land devoted to parking in every major city in the U.S. I quickly realized how difficult that was.”

PRN: Where did the idea for the Parking Lot Map come from?

TC: As I started thinking more about parking reform, the first question I tried to answer was, “if parking is so endemic, what percentage of our cities’ land is taken up by it?” I found sparse information, if any, on how massive the problem was on a city-by-city basis. There’s even data on parks as a percent of the city, but not parking. How could a crucial issue lack some of the most critical quantitative data about land use? That’s when I decided to fill in the literature gap. It became my new cause, and I was going to map all land devoted to parking in every major city in the U.S. I quickly realized how difficult that was.

PRN: Difficult is probably an understatement. What was your mapping process like?

TC: I started this project about a year ago by hand mapping every lot devoted primarily for parking in cities where parking was visibly a problem. I judged this based on satellite photos of all major cities. The process would take me weeks for a single city, but I was determined to map the worst and best cities. The project would allow people to see the problem and the alternative easily. Between a full-time job, I fully mapped 10 cities in nine months. Ultimately, I realized that the 10 cities I mapped were similar to most U.S. cities. I needed a new way to make these maps.

I started researching everything I could on databases with parking information. That’s when it struck me: All GPS systems have already mapped every structure in most U.S. cities, including parking structures. If I could use that data to find a structure based on its primary use, parking, I could mass-produce these maps and create a complete database. This would be groundbreaking and allow anyone to instantly visualize the problem that parking poses in their metro area. Eventually, I realized you could do that exact thing on OpenStreetMap.

PRN: How did you find the Parking Reform Network and why did you want to share your work with us? 

TC: Once I finalized a method for creating parking maps, I began compiling a list of places that might be interested in the database. This moment coincided with Parking Reform Network appearing on CityNerd’s YouTube channel. I added them to the email list, and Tony Jordan, Parking Reform Network president, replied almost instantly: “Let’s chat!” In the meeting that followed, I learned that we shared the same vision. We knew this database would be a great fit with a nonprofit dedicated to reversing decades of bad parking policy. 

In just three months, we were ready with a map that includes the 50 largest cities in the largest metropolitan regions in the country. The more cities we add, the easier it will be for people to learn about parking reform and relate to it on a community level.

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