When Carl Schneeman, a partner at Walker Consultants, is designing a parking lot or public parking garage, he imagines every spot being filled by the same car. Not because he expects that to happen in real life, but because there are thousands of different cars and models on the road. He cannot possibly account for every one.
Instead, Schneeman uses a “a design vehicle,” he told Motherboard in a recent interview. This is not a real car or even a sketch of one. It is the bare outlines of a car, a two-dimensional representation of a car-shaped object. It is a car boiled down to the only two aspects of a car that matter to the parking lot designer: width and length.
The design vehicle is a statistical composite of a car, compiled by the Parking Consultants Council, a professional association of parking lot designers. Every five years or so, the Parking Consultants Council analyzes the U.S.’s car sales data. It then calculates the 85th percentile car size, or the size of a car that is bigger than 85 percent of cars sold but smaller than the other 15 percent. The design vehicle Schneeman and his industry colleagues use is six feet seven inches wide and 16 feet 10 inches long; incidentally the exact width of a Ford’s F-150, the U.S.’s most popular vehicle and a symbol of the country’s appetite for larger cars.
This approach to designing parking spaces has historically served the parking industry well, ensuring space sizes accommodate the vast majority of American cars and leaving about 20 inches of space for people to open their doors and maneuver on either side. But, due to a statistical quirk in how the data is analyzed and implemented, it may no longer be working.
Increasingly, cars are too big for parking spaces, especially in parking garages and other paid parking lots where developers pay close attention to space size. Like the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pot of water, our cars have gotten ever-so-gradually bigger with each passing year, but the parking space standards have barely budged. Now, in the third decade of the growing car size trend, people are starting to notice.
Schneeman said clients often tell him and his colleagues that spaces need to get bigger. “That is definitely something that we are hearing,” he told Motherboard.
The width of a parking space is the result of a carefully balanced determination between convenience, economics, and circumstance. While there is no uniform law covering all of the U.S.’s parking spaces, there are design standards that are relatively consistent across the country. Most parking spaces are between eight feet six inches and ten feet wide, but the most common size is nine feet (108 inches, with four inch wide lines). However, parking spot sizes vary depending on what kind of building they’re for. For free parking lots with high turnover—grocery stores and shopping plazas, restaurants, etc.—nine feet wide is the standard. Spaces outside office buildings are often six inches narrower because people come and go less and are more familiar with the design. Spaces at a Costco or Home Depot where people need more space to load their cars may be 10 feet wide.
Naturally, everyone wants bigger spaces. When Warren Vander Helm, a partner at Parking Design Group, first meets with a client on a new project, one of the first things they will say is they want the spots to be big. But once Vander Helm walks them through the local zoning regulations that require a certain number of parking spaces, how much more surface area big spots will require to meet that minimum, and how much more that will cost, the enthusiasm for big spots wanes.
“For a surface lot, you’re looking at $7,000, $7,500 just to build one parking space,” Vander Helm said. “For an underground garage, in a city, it can be $200,000 per space, easy. Structured parking above ground is $40,000, $45,000 per space. That’s where developers may want wider parking spaces. But when it comes right down to it, then he falls back to what the city is saying you got to build.”
As a result of these punishing economics, in the world of parking spaces, inches matter. “Certainly, a foot is a lot,” said Vander Helm.
In a lot of hundred or even thousands of spaces, even a few inches can be the difference between profit and loss. Recently, Schneeman was working on a project for an office building in a mid-size city in the midwest that requires all parking spaces to be nine feet wide. They wanted to build a parking structure with spaces eight feet six inches wide, as is common at office buildings around the country. Making each space six inches wider would have forced the structure to be eight percent bigger and therefore more expensive. “It was forcing us to consider a facility with a much larger footprint for the same number of cars,” Scheeman said. They had to apply for a zoning variance, which required an application and four meetings with city officials and the city council. They ultimately got the variance but it was, as Schneeman put it, “kind of a pain in the butt.”
As parking lot designers scrutinize every inch of their work, car designers have been wantonly adding inches to theirs. American cars keep getting bigger. Car companies keep killing off small and medium-sized cars. In 1985, about three out of every four vehicles made for U.S. sale were sedans or wagons. To be sure, some wagons were quite boat-like, but mostly this represented the “small car” category. The rest were trucks, minivans, vans, and pickups, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, that ratio has precisely flipped. About one in every four vehicles is a sedan or hatchback—wagons are essentially extinct—with the other three quarters the larger vehicles. It is the subject of much debate whether this was a trend driven by consumer preference or the fact that automakers can charge a lot more for bigger cars where the profit margins are significantly higher and therefore consistently invest billions of dollars a year in marketing campaigns to convince people they want or need bigger cars.
Regardless of the cause, the end result is roughly 50 percent of the American car market switched from sedans and wagons to SUVs, especially midsize and large SUVs, chunkifying the average American car. Consider someone who switched from a Honda Civic to a Honda CR-V. This added about three inches in width. A CR-V to a Pilot, a large SUV, would add five more inches in width. This may not sound like much, but repeat for half the cars in a parking lot and it adds up. For example, in a 700-space garage, if each car is four inches wider than its predecessor, that is 233 additional feet in car width—from the goal line to the opponent’s 23 yard line on a football field—that needs to be accommodated.
Plus, the SUV-ificiation of American cars is only part of the equation. Existing models put on pounds and inches with every design refresh—when a car commercial announces the “all-new” version of a model that has been around for decades—a trend that has been especially pronounced in the SUV/crossover segment. Motherboard researched the width of dozens of popular car models in the U.S. over the last 20 years and not a single one got narrower. The vast majority got wider, with only a few remaining within an inch of its predecessor. There are only a handful of models—unpopular ones at that—under 70 inches wide for sale. For example, a new Toyota Rav4 is five inches wider than the 2003 version. A Honda CR-V is three inches wider than its 2003 counterpart. Even sedans have slightly grown. The Camry and Accord are about 1.6 inches wider than they were in 2003.
Pickup trucks have quite obviously grown more than any other vehicle class in recent decades. They have grown in height and length, but not as much in width. A 2003 Ford F-150 was 79 inches wide, the same as the 2023 model. The F-250 and F-350 models are behemoths but only 1 inch wider. Dodge Ram pickups have followed the SUV trend of growing from 79 inches wide in the early 2000s to 82 inches and up to—gulp—88 inches in recent years for the largest models. But 80-plus inch wide cars are generally rare; the new Hummer EV is 86 inches wide because of course it is.
Again, these inches add up. Parking designers plan for 20 inches of extra space in a parking spot to accommodate people coming and going from their cars, loading cargo and children, and so on. In a standard nine-foot wide space, that leaves 88 inches for the car itself. Modern cars fit by these standards, but only just. Drivers have to pull into spaces more or less perfectly to not encroach on neighboring spaces with their door swing. Even a few inches to the left or right will be a problem. And getting into that spot just right is harder than before, given that the cars are not only wider but longer, increasing the distance between the front and back wheels, which makes the turning radius bigger and maneuverability worse.
As a result, there is a phenomenon in American parking garages almost anyone who uses them will recognize. A car will be pulled into a spot just slightly off center. The car next to it will have to park further over in order to get out, and so will the next one. This will continue until one car will have to encroach on the space next to it, rendering that space useless except for perhaps a compact car, which almost nobody has.
In theory, the sales data the Parking Consultants Council analyzes will have taken all of these market changes into account and adjusted space width accordingly. This is, after all, what happened in the mid-20th Century, when cars became huge, boat-like cruisers during the 1950s and 60s when gas was cheap. Spaces got bigger. Then the oil crisis struck, gas prices skyrocketed, and fuel economy became all the rage. Car sizes shrunk and parking spots did too.
Scheeman said this time is different because, while there are obvious changes to the size of American vehicles, the 85th percentile isn’t budging. It’s a statistical quirk that reveals the shortcomings of the 85th percentile method—which, incidentally, is the same method departments of transportation use to set speed limits, measuring the speed of all cars on the road and determining the speed of the 85th percentile car, an approach that has also revealed itself to have tremendous shortcomings. In short, the 85th percentile method is not capturing the changes in the car sizes. The size of the 10th percentile car has exploded. The size of the 50th percentile car has grown tremendously. The size of the 70th percentile car has also grown. But the 85th percentile car is essentially the Ford F-150, which is much taller and longer than it used to be, but no wider.
As a result, the changes to parking space standards have not kept up with the explosion in vehicle sizes. In 1987, Scheeman says, the design vehicle used for parking space standards was three inches narrower than it is today. But, that same year, the best-selling car in the U.S., the Ford Escort, was a whopping 13 inches narrower than the best-selling car in 2022, the Ford F-150.
Scheeman told Motherboard he just received the most recent update to the design vehicle standards but hasn’t had a chance to look it over yet. “I think if we see a continuance in vehicles getting bigger and bigger, we're gonna have to look at it and say can people reasonably operate? If the vehicle is continuing to get wider, do we need to make an adjustment? I think we will.”
If this does happen, it will have a knock-on effect on the price for parking across the country. Essentially, parking lot owners will have two choices: Either make spaces bigger and charge more for them or make some spaces bigger, charge vehicles that park there more, and keep the prices lower for smaller vehicles. Oversized vehicle fees have become popular in dense urban parking lots, especially in New York City, but are rare in the rest of the country.
It’s easy to imagine the backlash that may ensue from any effort to charge people with large vehicles more for parking, even though the suggestion that people who use more of something should pay more than people who use less is one of the most basic tenets of economic theory and the basis of capitalism. But now, everything with a hint of stifling Traditional American Values is part of the culture wars. And, somehow, big cars have become part of that worldview. But there is nothing traditional about huge cars. The evidence is all around us. Just look down.