We sold our car in 2006 and have never replaced it, despite the fact that in the meantime we moved out of the city and into a suburb where a car is considered essential. Our original reason for getting rid of ours was the cost. We were paying for insurance and biannual inspections and parking just for the privilege of owning a vehicle that we really didn’t use that much. Living where we did we had ready access to several train lines and as we both aged what we once considered the convenience of having a car at our disposal faded, mainly because driving in Japan isn’t very enjoyable, what with the narrow streets, highway tolls, and difficulty with street parking. Though we’ve often thought of buying a car again for emergency use, we keep putting it off because it’s really nice not to have that burden any more. We manage just fine with bicycles and car share services.
The last place we lived had an underground mechanical parking facility. The space you rented was actually a pallet that moved vertically and horizontally. Parking lots are two-dimensional and thus require a lot of ground space. Mechanical parking garages, what we liked to call “3D parking lots,” used space both above and below the ground level to store cars, thus requiring less real estate. When we wanted to use our car, we went to the carousel assigned to us and, inputting a special code, “retrieved” the pallet by rearranging the other pallets in the carousel in order to place ours right at the front of the gate. This means, of course, that you have to wait for all the pallets to be rearranged properly, and sometimes it took a little time. It was especially troublesome if somebody else who had rented a pallet in your particular carousel was retrieving their car just as you arrived. On a few occasions, we needed our car quickly in order to make it in time for an appointment, and someone was already there getting their car so we had to wait. Fortunately, we never had, like, a medical emergency that required an automobile. The only saving grace was the rent, which was relatively cheap for Tokyo. Before living in that apartment we lived close to the Saitama border and rented a parking space from JR under the railroad tracks. It was unpaved but the tracks protected the vehicles from rain, and we paid ¥23,000 a month. The pallet we rented was ¥18,000 a month, and it was much closer to the center of the city.
We were renters and so parking didn’t come with the apartment. It was optional and thus required extra rent. In many condos, however, parking comes with the unit you buy—or it doesn’t. But in any case if the parking space is mechanical, maintenance is much more expensive than it is if it’s just a two-dimensional lot, and, according to a two-part feature in Asahi Shimbun, more and more condo homeowners’ associations are having trouble coming up with the funds to maintain their parking facilities. Condo residents typically pay monthly fees for both regular management and long-term major repairs for the physical buildings, including the one that contains the parking garage. In order to alleviate some of the burden, condos will opt to rent spaces to people from outside the condominium, though many won’t since it’s sometimes difficult to get consensus to allow outsiders to use the premises. Asahi says that, depending on the area, up to 40 percent of condo parking lots/garages are vacant. The newspaper visited on older condo in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, where the age of the average resident has increased in recent years. These people have given up their cars and one-third of the parking spaces assigned to the condo are empty. Nevertheless, the homeowners association will have to pay ¥100 million on maintenance over the next 8 years. They could demolish the garage and be done with it, but that would require the agreement of three-fourths of the residents, which would be difficult to do. Another condo in Minato Ward said that because of the parking maintenance costs, the association’s fund was running ¥2.3 million in the red every year, so they contracted with a parking lot operator to rent spaces to outsiders, and now they’re running in the black. One parking sublease company said that as of January, they had contracts with 457 condo homeowners associations, which translates as a sevenfold increase in their sublease business over the last 5 years. And yet vacancy rates continue to rise.
As everyone knows, Japan’s population is dropping, and apparently more and more parking spaces in mechanical garages are standing empty. Many condo homeowner associations cover maintenance costs for their garages by renting spaces to non-residents, which means if spaces remain unoccupied the homeowners have to pay more per resident every month to maintain the garage, even if they don’t have a car themselves. One homeowners’ association the newspaper talked to in Tama, in western Tokyo, said they’ve already raised the long-term repair fund twice to cover maintenance costs and will probably have to do it again soon. In some cases, evidently, homeowners’ associations have foregone maintenance in order to save money and the facilities have fallen into disrepair. Between 2017 and 2019, the land ministry reports 11 serious accidents in mechanical parking garages that resulted in injury and/or major damage, including pallets that came off due to rusty bolts and collapsed with cars on them. One expert told Asahi that while automobile usage has gone up due to the COVID pandemic, in the long run there will be a loss of users and by extension a greater number of parking space vacancies in Japan, thus causing more of a financial burden for condo owners and parking lot/garage operators.
In 1957, Japan enacted a parking law to address the skyrocketing sales of cars. At the time, there weren’t enough places to park all these new vehicles, and the law obligated local governments to provide sufficient parking in any new buildings they approved within their jurisdictions. The city of Chiba, for instance, mandated that parking spaces for up to 60 percent of the units in a new condominium must be assured. However, as demand for residential land increased, especially in big cities, the cost of such ordinances was considerable, which is why the mechanical 3D parking garage was developed. Many were built on the cheap. You can still find these ugly, 3-4 story sheet metal parking towers all over parts of Tokyo where land owners built them to make money on the parking boom, but now many are empty.
The land ministry reports that from 1991 to 2018, the number of parking spaces nationwide increased by almost 3 times while car ownership increased by only about 30 percent. In the ten years leading up to 2018, parking spaces increased by 20 percent in Tokyo’s 23 wards while car ownership decreased by 10 percent. One reason for the increase is that parking lot operators, like Times, are actively soliciting owners of small plots to let them lease the land for coin-operated parking lots, some of which also offer car-sharing services. Many local governments are now reviewing their parking space ordinances, but nationwide mechanical garages have much higher vacancy rates (19.5 percent) than do flat parking lots (6.9 percent). Also, the older the building, the higher the vacancy rate—in Tokyo, the vacancy rate for buildings that are more than 21 years old is 38 percent. Older garages have another problem in that more new car buyers are opting for SUVs that don’t fit on older pallets, so if you’re going to buy one of those Toyota boats, make sure you have a space in a parking lot lined up.