The real cost of free parking
A fantastic piece from CityLab on what free parking really costs.
Parking requirements enable everyone to park free at everyone else’s expense and no one knows that anyone is paying anything. Parking is free, however, only because everything else is more expensive.
A recent study found that the parking spaces required for shopping centers in Los Angeles increase the cost of building a shopping center by 67 percent if the parking is in an aboveground structure and by 93 percent if the parking is underground. Retailers pass this high cost on to all shoppers, regardless of how they travel. People who cannot afford a car pay more for their groceries so richer people can park free when they drive to the store.
That’s true for housing, too. Small, spartan apartments cost less to build than large, luxury apartments, but their parking spaces cost the same. Because many cities require the same number of spaces for every apartment regardless of its size or quality, the required parking disproportionately increases the cost of low-income housing. One study found that minimum parking requirements raise housing costs by 13 percent for families without cars.
And that’s not saying anything about environmental costs, time wasted in moronic traffic jams, stress related to same, accidents causing serious injuries or death, smaller accidents costing repairs and lost earnings.
Off-street parking requirements are what engineers call a “kludge”—an awkward but temporarily effective solution to a problem. In this case, the problem they address is a shortage of free on-street parking. But severing the link between the cost of providing parking and the price that drivers pay for it increases the demand for cars, and when citizens object to the resulting traffic congestion, cities respond by restricting development to reduce traffic. In other words: Cities are limiting the density of people to limit the density of cars. Free parking has become the arbiter of urban form, and cars have replaced humans as zoning’s real density concern.
Ending minimum parking requirements should be a no-brainer. Let builders decide how much space around their condo/apartment building or shopping plaza they want to devote to cars. If someone wants to make a name for themselves as a pedestrian/cyclist/transit-friendly kind of business, why not?
In car-dependent suburbs, and even more so in rural areas, people move around by car for just about everything, from work to grocery shopping and entertainment. Suburbanites own a lot of cars. It’s not uncommon to see two vehicles parked in each driveway, with a third on the street. That’s a lot of space devoted to temporary storage of private metal boxes. But people who live there say those cars are needed and I take them at their word. Designing walkable suburban neighbourhoods should be a priority and maybe one day it will be.
But in the meantime, if you take your car somewhere, you need a place to park it. Makes sense. If you’re in an area without much population density, the cost of adding parking spaces around the local grocer is a lot less than it would be to force Bridgehead on Bank St to add six spots. And frankly, if you’re going to go buy your weekly load of food at Loblaw’s/Indepenednt Grocer in Riverside South for your family of five which now includes two ravenous teenage boys, you’re going to need to take the car because the Loblaws in Riverside South is at least four km from your house making it awkward to walk and besides you’re planning to bring back at least six heavy cloth bags full of goodies and nobody wants to walk or bike with that.
Been there (minus the teenage boys), done that, had the SUV. You’ve made certain life choices, you have growing people with bottomless pits in their tummies living in your house, you only have so much time to devote to grocery shopping, you hate going on Saturdays with the crowds and the infuriatingly full parking lot, but c’est la vie, that’s where you live, and you need food. You are not in the mood to think about the added costs of your car dependency, because that would require a side trip to LCBO and parking there is hell on weekends, too.
I understand. But it doesn’t make those undue extra parking costs disappear. It’s just not clear to see a way from where we are to where we’d rather be.
What makes sense is to start small, and to start with areas with enough population density that things you need to get to on a daily basis are a short walk away.
Slowly increase the cost of on-street parking, as the City just did. Don’t force businesses to have minimum parking spaces. Slowly reduce the number of parking spaces available. For instance, take one spot on each block and turn it into a micro-park. Google “parking parklet” and look at images. Me, I like this. Make it harder and less convenient for people to take their cars in areas of high population density, like downtown, including on weekends. For those who come from afar, make spots available near transit and make transit cheap or, better yet, free on weekends so families in town for a visit find it cheaper and more convenient to drive from Rockland to a park and ride in Orléans and finish the trip on transit.
Yes, it requires changing our current habits, and no, it’s not a perfect solution. A perfect solution is a lot more transit covering a lot more ground. But this can’t happen overnight. What can happen overnight is making parking gradually more expensive, rarer and less convenient in those areas where cars have no business being. Because the cost of free or cheap parking is real, and we’re all paying for it. Not in theory, but in real life, every day.