Parking Madness: Niagara Falls vs. Ann Arbor

We’ve seen some tough competition in the first round of the 2016 Parking Madness tournament. Yesterday, the parking lots of Federal Way, Washington, knocked out the parking lots around Montreal’s central rail station to advance.

Today’s matchup looks fierce, with a crater in the tourist destination downtown of Niagara Falls, New York, facing off against a crater in the university town of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Niagara Falls


Mere blocks away from the scenic grandeur of the falls is this stupendous array of surface parking lots, interspersed with hotels, convention buildings, and a casino. In a hopeful sign for Niagara Falls, however, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced today that the state will remove a two-mile stretch of highway that impedes access between downtown and the riverfront.

Ann Arbor

Screen Shot 2016-03-10 at 3.02.36 PM

This is the classic parking crater form: a downtown of walkable blocks and buildings flush against each other, interrupted by the jarring flatness of surface parking.

“The building in the upper left replaced a 1940s two-level parking structure, so that’s progress,” says submitter Ryan Arnold. “If they keep that up, they could do great things with this empty downtown block.”

Considering the context, which is worse?

Which city has the worst parking crater?

  • Niagara Falls (91%, 208 Votes)
  • Ann Arbor (9%, 21 Votes)

Total Voters: 229


28 thoughts on Parking Madness: Niagara Falls vs. Ann Arbor

  1. The Ann Arbor example is one block of parking surrounded by fully developed city blocks. How on earth does that remotely compare to the Niagara falls picture? I can think of lots better examples, even in Ann Arbor. Just go out of downtown and look at the mall area; there you can find some realistic contenders.

  2. Agreed. Good news that they’re removing the parkway though, what they’re proposing is much nicer, however: 42 million dollars to remove 2 miles of road? Why so much? Why not just let the road be and make it a bicycle highway/pedestrian only street or something?

  3. In Ann Arbor, there’s obvious demand for other uses of the space, and this parking is being subsidized though lower property taxes. I agree that Niagara takes it on this one, but it’s not a slam dunk in my book.

  4. If lower property taxes are considered a subsidy for parking lots, then Niagara subsidizes a lot more parking than the city of Ann Arbor….

  5. I have to say that a lot of times I feel like my home, Los Angeles, is really backward when it comes to livable streets… then I see these parking madness pictures and I just don’t feel so bad about L.A.

  6. The troubles with Ann Arbor parking cannot be seen via satellite, they are all happening behind closed doors, where DDA board members and City Council conspire to rig parking rates, pay more per spot for new construction of parking than most cities, give away publicly-funded parking in structures as developer incentives, and earn less per spot than most cities. They also refuse to issue permits for operation of private parking lots (the notable exceptions being people selling their front yards for Michigan Football parking on game days, and developers who have greased the skids of city council)

  7. This seems so sad… I lived in Ann Arbor as a kid (4th-6th grade) in the ’70s, while my mom went to law school, and remember it as being a pretty nice place, I’d walk, ride my bike, and ride the bus all over the place by myself, and our family car typically sat unused for weeks at a time.

    I remember very walkable small-scale tree-lined streets, and for a while we lived in a university housing project that was right next to a rather large and dense woods, where us kids would spend like 80% of our time completely hidden from civilization; we even discovered a huge abandoned garden full of elaborate stone walls and odd monuments and constructions, completely overgrown and hidden deep in the middle of the woods…

    I don’t know if we were just lucky and missed all the rot, or whether it’s simply all happened since then… TT

  8. It’s a national rot, and as a large and relatively prosperous city, LA may have both more incentive and more means to resist it than most places.

  9. Ann Arbor is still very walkable, with a lot of the character you describe intact. The core city has relatively little surface parking, there is an active bus system, and so on.

  10. because superhighways destroy cities, it is not just the induced demand, it’s the excess scale, the division of nieghbors from each other, and just the shear ugliness of superhighways.

    Be prepared, there will eventually be a campaign to remove the blight of the BQE & FDR. Hundreds of billions in increased property values and tens of thousands of new housing will be the result of removing the BQE & FDR

  11. If you’ve been to Niagara, you’d know that the Robert moses parkways isn’t a superhighway by any stretch. Induced demand isn’t a problem here either, as the whole reason it’s being removed is that it’s underutilized. It also does not divide neighbors from each other, since there are no houses at all on one side.

    Believe me, Niagara Falls NY wishes that highway induced demand. They just can’t compete with the tourist destination that is Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. That combined with the loss of industry and the fact that the city has literally 50% less people than it did in the 60’s… well, they have other problems.

    Now if NYC loses 50% of its population, sure I’d expect some highways to be removed. Will that happen though? I don’t know, I’m not in the business of predicting the future.

    The most I can say is that self driving cars will change the urban landscape significantly in the near future. That might mean more car share, or that might mean a drain from anything but the central core of cities to exurbs, I don’t know. Taking NYC as an example, manhattan will do fine, but anything more than a ~15min transit ride from it might empty out, or just become poor/blighted, once anyone who can afford a self driving car figures out that an hour on the subway is far less pleasant than an hour in a self driving car. (not to mention cheaper, larger housing, lack of city income tax, etc.). You might see flight to the suburbs like we saw post war once again.

  12. You might see flight to the suburbs like we saw post war once again.

    I think this is ultimately where self-driving cars will lead, and anything that says otherwise is just whistling past the graveyard.

    Increasing energy costs would be the only real limiting factor for suburban sprawl in the future.

  13. fascinating topic – self driving cars.

    I tend to believe self driving cars will have little effect on the long term trend to return to city life. Self Driving Cars still have all the negatives associated with big clunky expensive machines requiring massive subsidies to function for mass mobility. Remove the subsidies and VMT plumments.

    The political winds are changing such that subsidies for mass motoring are being questioned. It will take a long time to phase out car subsidies, but it will eventually happen.

    When looking at this subject, we need to be more nuanced about the definition of Suburb. Inner Ring suburbs built before 1965 are very different tha outer ring suburbs built after 1990. Inner ring suburbs are likely going to continue to gentrify. I was in Erie PA the other day and the entire inner ring housing stock is rehabbed and gentrificatied. It is surprising because Erie is geographically a small place and land is dirt cheap just a ‘half hour out of town’.

    People still own and drive cars in inner ring ‘burbs. They just don’t have very big VMTs. I foresee more and more families going car lite. In 1970, less than 1/4 of US households owned 2 cars despite much of the population living in ‘Suburbs’. This is a pattern which we are likely to return to.

    Self driving shared cars might accelerate the transition to car lite living. But they will not make the ex-Urbs self sustains

  14. I’ve been to Niagra Falls (NY), and the whole city is just a sad state of urban decay and abandonment. Because of the drop in population from its industrial heyday, Niagra Falls probably couldn’t build much on those parking lots anyway. The irony is, you pay to park “downtown” simply because its next to the falls. I think the parking lots must be the principal source of local revenue.

  15. You might be in for a big surprise:

    “Pretty much every study and assessment on self-driving cars ends up with a lot more kilometres in total being driven in cars. The vehicles remain single-passenger, regardless of whether they are personally owned vehicles or shared vehicles.”

    Very possible we’ll end up with a European city model: inner city= good, streetcar suburbs(outer boros equivalent)=terrible, poor, crime. Exurbs=good.

  16. these studies ignore the subsidies required for mass motoring.

    A robot car is still a car with all the enormous costs associated.

  17. …okay? moving the goalposts again I see.
    “I tend to believe self driving cars will have little effect on the long term trend to return to city life.” was what you wrote, and I tried to show evidence to the contrary.

    But, why not lets go off on that tangent:
    Lets look at an exteme case: let me give you an example of a country with massive user fees added to car ownership, and a pretty decent public transit system country wide; Israel.

    59% VAT on every car sold. (compared to our milder 0-10% sales taxes in the US).
    Gas there is also massively taxed and is about $5/gallon right now.

    Car ownership per 1000? 358. Similar to Washington DC’s 350. Considering the average salary over there is about $30k/year…

    Even when it costs a ridiculous amount, people still want (and get) cars. Adding costs to car ownership can only do so much to curb that need. At some point you’re just making the quality of life divide between the rich and the poor worse.

  18. Well, that depends on the person I guess.

    If you have a need for a car, travel far often, are a gearhead, or value your time highly, most definitely.

    If you like your neighborhood and are content to hang out there, are fine with sticking to the grid, or have time to spare, maybe not.

    Point is, even in a geographically small country where the cheapest car costs a year’s salary, gasoline is 2-3x the cost, public transportation is good, and long road trips are impossible due to hostile borders, the car ownership rate is still rather high. This case might be a good way to study the upper bound of high use fees, no?

  19. Niagara Falls is such a mess. Downtown is mostly parking (due to 1960s urban renewal) and the rest of the city is just a dangerous, decayed pit. Which is all kind of weird, given that it’s right next to one of the natural wonders of the world…but it doesn’t seem to have mattered much. On top of all that, NF is 20 miles from Buffalo, which, despite not being next to a wonder of the world, has been having a massive renaissance over the last few years… but somehow none of that investment seems to have bled over.

  20. Compared to other cities in Michigan Ann Arbor is doing very well with it downtown and parking. Just look at nearby Detroit or Lansing to see what parking madness is.

  21. Israel is a weird country and I’d rather you picked something else to analyze. This is why:

    Cars are a *class and in-group indicator* and are often used to say “I’m separate from those other people over there”.

    And Israel is *super super racist*. Huge amounts of bigotry, often directed at groups you might not even have heard of. So there are a ridiculous number of people who don’t want to be in the same bus or train with “those people”.

    I don’t think it is a good example to compare to normal countries.

  22. I’m sorry i disagree; Of course Israel has tons of problems like that, but in terms of transport, the bus system is really really egalitarian over there. Not to mention, everyone growing up there uses the buses while in the military for a few years; helping everyone get used to the idea for life.

    It’s a legitimately excellent bus system, and cars are quite expensive to own… and yet…

    I’m bringing this up, again, to point out that some use fees and taxes for cars are appropriate, but with enough of them, you’re just separating the rich and the poor and just pushing people to buy cheaper cars, (e.g. yaris vs corolla).

  23. The history of the “parking crater” known as the Brown Block in Ann Arbor is that it used to be a car dealership, known as Huron Motor Sales, owned by Mayor Brown and dating back to at least 1945.

    First Martin corporation has held on to the land for decades waiting for the right moment to redevelop it. I’m not sure why they are still waiting, as Ann Arbor is booming, downtown prices are through the roof, and they could put a large successful building on this land, but they are a very cautious company. (Their most recent project, NE of the Brown Block, was to repurpose they old Greyhound bus station into an event space and hotel.)

    Overall, Ann Arbor has a booming downtown (in large part because of the absence of parking craters and a DDA that regularly reinvests), is very walkable and bikeable.

    This contest should have looked at Lansing instead, which has a dead downtown, vast parking craters, and no life, but equivalent population.

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