We should curb parking requirements

This year I am on The Record’s Community Editorial Board. Today’s paper carries my column on the subject of off-street parking requirements. Below is my original text (most is behind the cut):

We Should Curb Parking Requirements

Why do we devote so much land to parking? You might suppose this is purely due to the high demand or the high value of parking, but you’d be wrong. Municipal by-laws have actually been requiring abundant off-street parking across North America since the 1940s — when cities started their decline and modern suburbs their ascent. These requirements pave the way for a spread-out, car-oriented form for cities, to the detriment of the density and foot traffic necessary for vibrant urban areas.

Post-war planners worried that new parking demand together with low curb parking supply would wreak havoc. So they measured the demand generated by various land uses — neatly separated, in the fashion of the time — under the critical but unstated assumption that parking is free. They then required landowners to accommodate that amount of parking on their own lots. As supply goes up, the price goes down. As the price goes down, demand goes up. Supplying enough spaces to satisfy the high demand for free parking has effectively made parking free or close to it.

But there ain’t no such thing as a free parking spot. The cost of parking includes construction, maintenance, and above all the opportunity cost of other uses for that space. These costs are borne by all of us through higher rents, higher prices, and lower wages, as well as through air pollution and congested streets. At no point are we asked whether it’s worth it to us; we’re just given a spot, or more likely several. Whether or not we own cars, we all pay for free parking.

Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, has detailed The High Cost of Free Parking in his eponymous volume. Shoup argues that on-street parking prices should ensure that about 15% of spaces are vacant at any given time, so people can find parking without clogging the streets in the search. He suggests using new technology that dynamically gauges use and updates prices, and easy-to-use multi-space meters that accept multiple payment types. Revenues should be directed to improving the streetscape and public space in the surrounding neighbourhood, deflating tensions with non-resident motorists. With on-street parking under control, off-street parking should be left as a market-driven choice for developers and garage operators.

Required parking gives an advantage to suburban over urban development due to the higher costs of structured parking (a spot can easily cost $30,000). If builders were allowed to determine how much parking to provide, they would be able to choose to locate next to quality transit service to eliminate some parking expense and thus to be more competitive. Suburban development patterns would have a hard time competing against the frequency of transit or the density and diversity of use made possible by parking-optional urban development. This would help urban built form regain its upper hand.

Even without requirements, it’s likely most developers would find benefit in providing off-street parking, for which owners could decide whether to charge. However, it is no business of the city to mandate parking regardless of costs. Many cities actually impose parking caps instead, to encourage density and to ensure space is not reflexively devoted to cars.

Our region seeks to channel growth into urban cores and major transit nodes. To reach a reurbanized Waterloo Region, we must remove the barriers to urban form we have erected. New residents will see a region with light rail and a good bus system, with intercity and commuter rail, with bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly areas. Let’s stop assuming that everyone needs to pay for our collective free parking and let’s empower people to make the parking judgement for themselves. Removing the mandatory parking subsidies will encourage transit-oriented development and allow easier and cheaper urban construction, making it more affordable to live, work, and shop in the region’s urban cores.

Michael Druker is a pedestrian, transit user, driver, and cyclist in Kitchener-Waterloo. He is rarely asked to pay for parking. See more of his opinions at http://psystenance.com.

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3 responses to “We should curb parking requirements”

  1. plam says :

    +1 (but what are the parking requirements specific to this area?)

    • Michael D says :

      All three cities require parking for every use, as far as I know. I believe the only exceptions are old sections of downtowns. (Isn’t it strange how the zoning by-law has to make exceptions for the parts that work the best?)

      Kitchener’s requirements: http://bit.ly/6njqlZ (the schedule starts on page 6). Even their new mixed-use zoning still requires a parking space for each residential unit.

      Waterloo’s requirements are scattered throughout its zoning by-law: http://waterloo.ca/DesktopDefault.aspx?tabid=2385 I think they are comparable to Kitchener’s, but with this kind of information I can’t be sure.

      Cambridge’s requirements are section 2.2 of its zoning by-law: http://www.cambridge.ca/relatedDocs/ZoningBylaw.pdf It also has a new Core Areas Parking Master Plan: http://www.cambridge.ca/transportation_public_works/core_areas_parking_master_plan While this document makes some good suggestions, eliminating off-street parking requirements is not among them, and its suggested parking maxima would only be for the “core”.

      • plam says :

        Yeah. Pretty regressive. (Mind you, I understand that UW operates parking on a cost-recovery basis, so that’s something at least. I’m not sure if that includes only the cost of building the parking lot, or also the land value.)

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