If asked to list Edmonton’s problems, a typical Edmontonian would likely mention potholes, snow removal, and taxes, which, when you think about it, are the things everyone wants from their municipal government: good infrastructure, effective services, and a reasonable cost of providing the two. Parking, being plentiful and inexpensive here relative to other similarly-sized Canadian cities, would probably escape mention.
Unless they were asking me. I’d put parking at the top of the list, and definitely not because we have too little of it. On the contrary, I’d argue that the abundance and cheapness of parking in our city directly and significantly contribute to the very problems listed above. When regulated incorrectly, as I think it is in Edmonton, parking drives up the costs of just about everything by wasting land that could be otherwise used more productively.
Although one could argue for a long time about whether, say, a consistently full lot that provides a employee parking for business during working hours is more or less productive than a mixed-use, medium-density commercial/residential complex, one thing that is not debatable is that an empty parking stall is less productive than just about anything. Unfortunately, empty stalls are something most North American cities (ours included) have no shortage of, thanks in large part to antiquated parking requirements like those found in Edmonton’s municipal zoning bylaw.
Such regulations generally prescribe a minimum amount of parking that is required for each development, based on some index of the development’s size or occupancy. (For example, apartment housing within the boundaries of the Downtown Area Redevelopment plan requires a minimum of 0.5 spaces per bachelor suite, 0.75 spaces per 1 bedroom dwelling, 1 parking space per 2 or-more bedroom dwellings, and 1 visitor parking space per 7 dwellings; commercial developments with area greather than 28 000 m² require 4 parking spaces per 100 m² of floor area; etc). These minimums consistently result in an oversupply of parking spaces (particularly in the suburbs) because, most commonly, they are not determined using logical means (eg, research and analysis of the jurisdiction within which they are prescribed). Instead, they are usually based on either flawed and outdated handbook data or surveys of neighbouring/similar districts — districts which themselves most likely use similarly illogical techniques to set their parking regulations. Because the handbook data (typically from the Institute of Transportation Engineers) is intended to represent peak conditions (and generally skewed toward providing an oversupply of parking), and because almost every district in North America oversupplies parking, determining parking regulations in this manner consistently results in a surplus of parking stalls.
So why are too many parking stalls a problem? Because they cost money –although parking is (usually) without a price, it is not without a cost. Someone has to acquire, upgrade, maintain, and pay taxes on the countless hectares of land our city uses to store automobiles: businesses, residents, or governments, community groups, etc. Forcing these parties to build a minimum amount of parking reduces the efficiency with which they can allocate their resources. They force public officials, for example, to devote money (sometimes very significant amounts, particularly if parking structures of any kind are required) to parking stalls that may or may not be used, instead of letting the officials determine levels of parking at which additional stalls would not serve the public better than enhancements to the facility they’re building. Such inefficiency drives up the costs of all buildings, which increases the cost of doing business and of housing and ultimately reduces the city’s standard of living and competitiveness vis-a-vis other districts.
Effectively, parking minimums represent a subsidy to drivers on behalf of property owners. (In the absence of parking minimums, many property owners would undoubtedly continue with standard practise, but I would argue that they should at least be given a choice). The imposition of such a subsidy could potentially be acceptable if it served societal goals, but this subsidy does just the opposite: by reducing the intensity with which land is developed and engendering automobile use, parking minimums reinforce and underlay sprawl, further entrenching a mode of growth cities continent-wide are trying to escape. Research has also shown that excessive, artificially inexpensive parking frustrates efforts to increase transit usage, and makes sites on the urban fringes more attractive as their lower land costs significantly reduce the cost of providing parking. In short, parking minimums actively work against almost every long-term development goal our city has.
So, what’s to be done? That will be the subject of a subsequent blog post. For now, I’ll point out that I’m certainly not advocating the eradication of parking in Edmonton. Rather, I’d simply like to see thoughtfully designed parking policies that further our city’s objectives replace the current set of regulations, derived from outdated convention, that frustrate progress in almost every respect.