In Gastown, one of Vancouver’s priciest and most popular downtown neighbourhoods, there’s a seven-storey parking garage that Janice Abbott said sits two-thirds empty on weekday afternoons.
For nearly four years, Abbott, the CEO of Atira Women’s Resource Society, has lobbied to turn the garage into affordable housing for vulnerable women and children. But the city has steadfastly said no.
“They are making parking a priority over housing,” said Abbott.
Her battle is an example of how North American cities are designed for cars and how many of the laws and policies are auto-centric. Even if you don’t own a car and never drive, you’re paying for other people’s cars—in rent as well as in health, social, and environmental costs.
While Ellie Lambert, a spokesperson for the City of Vancouver, acknowledged that the lack of affordable housing in the city is a “critical challenge,” she said in an email that the lot isn’t being considered as a place for it. A new project “would be quite costly for the developer as the cost of the new housing would need to be covered, as well as the cost of the replacement parking,” she said.
Abbott said by turning it into housing for people who typically don’t have a car, the area’s parking needs would go down. She blamed “an old-fashioned mindset” for existing parking requirements and she’s going to continue her lobbying efforts.
Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the UCLA, said North America’s bias towards cars is evident in zoning rules, which separate the areas where people work from the places where they live, and shop, and encourages car use and urban sprawl. “Zoning makes it really hard to live without a car,” he said in an interview.
According to Shoup, when cities offer “free parking,” at the mall or on the street for example, it’s a public subsidy for people who can afford a vehicle. He estimated that the U.S. spends between US$102 billion and US$374 billion on free parking, which is “somewhere between what we pay for Medicare and national defence.”
A zeal for personal vehicles in the U.S. is evident in the fact that there are 2 billion parking spots in the U.S. for about 200 million cars. Shoup said that means "the area of parking per car in the United States is thus larger than the area of housing per human."
Lawmakers overestimate how many parking spots a major city actually needs. Seattle has twice as much parking as it needs and Philadelphia has four parking spots for every home. According to Shoup, minimum parking requirements, which dictate how many parking spots new buildings need to have, in many major cities have gone overboard.
Toronto’s minimum parking requirements for homes generally work out to about one parking spot per residential unit. But even that is probably still too high, because parking inflates the cost of building homes and that translates into higher costs to own and rent. And those parking spots, unless they’re underground (which are more expensive to build), take up room that could be used for more units.
When you factor in ridesharing and the trend among young people living in urban centres not to own a car, those old rules don’t make sense anymore.
Kenn Hale is the director of advocacy and legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario (ACTO), a legal-aid clinic for low-income renters. He said the current system and rules put smaller developers at an economic disadvantage, and their projects don’t ever get a chance to build. This decreases supply and, in turn, boosts rental prices.
Hale calls minimum parking rules “a holdover from an earlier era” and because of the current housing crisis in the city, “we have to think about housing people first before we think about providing sheds for automobiles.”
According to Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit street safety advocacy group in New York, many of North America’s current parking requirements were created decades ago during “an era of peak automobile production and use.”
Cities do make exceptions to these rules.
New York has designated transit zones in lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn where the number of parking spots is significantly lower (there’s no new parking needed for some income-restricted housing). Many cities have relaxed rules for their downtown core and make exceptions to minimum parking requirements for social housing. But that still requires paperwork, permits, and lawyers, which come with costs that owners usually pass along to renters.
Shoup is "pro-choice" when it comes to parking requirements—he said the developer should be allowed to make the call on parking spots. Many cities have changed their downtown requirements and cities including San Francisco, Buffalo, and Hartford have done away with parking requirements altogether.
There are measurable social costs too. A recent study published in Ecological Economics estimated that car use costs the European Union US$566 billion a year while cycling produces a net social benefit of US$27 billion and walking US$75 billion. The study looked at factors including accidents, health, and environmental impact.
There’s also the fact that the North American auto industry has been heavily subsidized. Big car companies were given massive bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis ($106 billion in the U.S. and $18.2 billion in Canada). There are ongoing subsidies too, including the US$1.3 billion that Tesla has gotten from the state of Nevada.
This is government money that could go towards social programs, student loans—basically anything other than cars.
According to Joe Cutrufo, spokesperson of Transportation Alternatives, not only does a car-centric system contribute to urban sprawl and congestion because “more parking equals more driving,” but there’s a missed opportunity.
Instead of forcing developers to pay for parking spots when they build homes, he says policy should be more imaginative. It can force builders to pitch in for sustainable transportation or more walkable neighbourhoods by paying for bike lanes, bus routes, or sidewalk improvement.
“You can’t provide plenty of space for cars while at the same time creating a liveable city for human beings. The two just don’t play well together,” Cutrufo said.
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