(Part 1) A few thoughts on parking in Edmonton…

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 Instead, they are usually based on either flawed and outdated handbook data or surveys of neighbouring/similar districts  — districts which themselves most likely use similarly illogical techniques to set their parking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.

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3 responses to “(Part 1) A few thoughts on parking in Edmonton…

  1. I hardly think outdated parking problems is the real grind Edmonton has with transportation.

    Looking from the 21st floor of the ING buiding downtown, I was horrified with the amount of single level gravel parking lots filled to maximum occupancy. At nearly $20 a day, these stalls nearly cost as much as my rent – and people are willing and able to pay.

    Although I agree that outdated policies are counterproductive to municipality operations, I think our resources can be better used. People WANT these stalls.

    Why not focus on giving them more effective transit? The money that you spent on lawyers, municipal committees and councilors time updating irrelevant policies could be better spent on adding another stop to the proposed west end LRT route.

  2. This is a great post. Thank you.

  3. Curtis:

    Studies done on the subject show that parking availability and transit usage are in fact highly interrelated. If you think about it, this is intuitively obvious — as an example, why is it that so many people take the LRT to Oiler or Eskimo games? Because parking is ridiculous. Availability and price of parking is one of several factors that enter people’s calculations when they decide whether or not they’re going to take transit.

    This isn’t to say that parking is the only (or even most important) factor affecting transit usage, but it certainly is an important one. As I mention in the post, it also has important land-use and economic implications, which, to me, makes it an issue worth considering — especially when you consider the fact that making changes in this area basically free, unlike building LRT lines, buying buses, etc.

    Finally, you use as an example downtown surface parking lots, which are operated by parking companies on a for-profit basis. Although I can’t say I’m a huge fan of these lots, the policy I’m referring to would not directly affect them. The parking regulations I mention specify the amount of parking that must accompany any new development as part of that development (eg the number of stalls that have to be stuck underneath or adjacent to a new condo building). These regulations force landowners to provide parking that may or may not be needed, which is economically inefficient (in addition to frustrating transit and land use issues, as I mention above). The parking lots downtown are different, because they only exist insofar as the demand for them exists.

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