In a 1992 episode of the hit television show Seinfeld, the character George Costanza explains why he refuses to pay for parking: "It's like going to a prostitute. Why should I pay, when if I apply myself maybe I can get it for free?"

It's a common reluctance, which leads to drivers going around and around in search of the perfect spot. According to some research, such circling is a major contributor to congestion, and when people do manage to find a spot, they're motivated to occupy it for as long as possible.

Charging for street parking can change this dynamic, prompting quicker turnover of users. But it's a tricky balance. Charge too much and you can anger drivers and discourage them from stopping. Charge too little and you'll probably still anger them, without actually improving parking access. The economics of parking is one many municipalities grapple with. Even suburban cities built around the car are increasingly acknowledging the need to put a price on their curb space.

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Mississauga, the suburb of Toronto that is the sixth most populous city in the country, is deep in this debate. Its small amount of for-pay street parking is being expanded in the Port Credit neighbourhood and introduced in central Streetsville. The changes come in advance of a broader shake-up of the city's approach to parking that is expected to go to council next year.

"We need to recognize that there's a cost to offering parking," said Jamie Brown, Mississauga's manager of municipal parking. "The parking master plan builds on work that's already been done to look at how these principles can be applied [on non-residential streets] city-wide."

The history of paid parking

The parking meter was introduced in 1935 in Oklahoma City as a way to improve customer access to businesses. Observers had noticed that employees would occupy all the free curb-side spaces, forcing would-be customers to park farther away.

Setting time limits on free parking was not enough to deter people from leaving their car for long periods, leading to the imposition of a nickel-an-hour charge.

The result was faster turnover of the metered spots while the unmetered spots were invariably full. According to historian LeRoy Fischer, who wrote Reminiscences of the Development of the Parking Meter, businesses noticed this pattern and began asking for meters on their streets, leading to their rapid spread.

Even if bringing in paid parking has benefits, though, it can be a political hot button. There's invariably a flurry of concern whenever planners propose change to the use of road space. Small business owners can be particularly vocal, arguing that losing parking spaces, or charging for them, will hurt their viability.

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But for Donald Shoup – a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, who literally wrote the book on parking economics, publishing a seminal 765-page tome, The High Cost of Free Parking, spawning a legion of followers who call themselves Shoupistas – such logic is unpersuasive.

"Sure, some people won't come, but they'll be replaced with others who do," he said from Los Angeles, adding that a commitment to visit any particular business might indicate a better customer. "Who do you think will leave a higher tip at a restaurant, someone who's willing to come downtown only if he can park for free or someone who is willing to pay?"

Prof. Shoup briskly knocks down many of the common arguments against paid parking, including that it unfairly hurts poor people. He noted that driving involves a variety of costs and society isn't expected to, for example, provide free gasoline. But simply charging is not enough. Cities have to do it right.

"One of the reasons meters have a bad reputation is they're often mispriced," he said. "They're very clumsily managed."

When settling on an approach to parking and its cost, politicians first have to figure out what it is they're actually hoping to achieve. Is it cost-recovery, encouraging people to use transit instead of driving, maximizing the amount of spaces available or some other goal?

In Mississauga, the city commissioned a 35-page consultant report that details some of the more forward-thinking approaches to parking being used elsewhere. Among the examples it cites is San Francisco's method of having the parking price fluctuate based on demand and the way Markham allows shared parking, in which several buildings can use the same spaces.

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Many of these ideas are on the table as Mississauga prepares its parking master plan. In the meantime, the city is expanding the amount of paid curb parking in a few spots, trying to tackle the same problem that led 82 years ago to meters in Oklahoma City.

'You lose that personal touch'

In the area known as Streetsville, plans to manage demand by charging for street parking were news to several business owners interviewed along the strip.

Ravinder Khaira, owner of Select Fabric, said her customers wouldn't care about paying a few dollars to park. "If you need a facility, you have to pay," she said.

But a half-block away at Streetsville Travel, owner Connie Przygocki was worried that the charge would accelerate what she characterized as the area's shift to a place people drive through, without stopping.

"I think the initial shock of having to pay will stop some people coming," she said. "If you're paying for parking just to come in and talk about a flight, you might as well do it by phone. You lose that personal touch, and that's what we offer."

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Streetsville is a historic centre of Mississauga and Queen Street is its commercial strip, a mix of merchants, restaurants and cafés where street parking has long been free. The city did put time-restrictions on about 50 curb-side spots in the heart of the area, but that hasn't been enough to manage demand.

"Parking utilization is so high there just isn't any available," Mr. Brown said. "In that area, the premium on-street parking was very well-utilized. We were up around 90 per cent."

Parking theory has it that full occupancy for an area is 85 per cent, which translates into heavy use, while still allowing people to find a spot when they need one. Although setting the right price is usually the way to achieve this, parking in parts of Mississauga that are in high demand has traditionally been free.

The city is planning to bring in a modest charge in Streetsville early next year, structured to encourage shorter stays.

In Streetsville, it will cost $1.50 for the first hour and max out at $5 for three hours, the same parking fee structure the city has implemented in part of the Port Credit neighbourhood. And even though central Port Credit has several large lots offering free parking for up to 15 hours, the city says this fee has helped stimulate turnover. "It's working," Mr. Brown said.

Different approaches to the problem

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Mississauga's changes come as part of Greater Toronto's evolution from bedroom communities to cities in their own right. Throughout the municipalities near Toronto are pressures on everything from zoning to development approvals to transportation. The older model – in which everyone drove to work and there was always more land to develop – appears increasingly unviable.

Until now, Mississauga's approach to parking was old school. Demanding that developers include substantial parking in their buildings based on how they're used, a concept known parking minimums, discouraged the repurposing of older buildings and encouraged driving. Having free-to-use curb space in commercial areas had a similar effect on driving.

City officials acknowledge that their parking minimums are high compared with many other municipalities. There are no plans to do away with minimums as part of their parking overhaul, but these could be reduced in specific areas, to reflect the proximity to transit. And the parking master plan going to council next year will look at different types of fee structures for street parking.

An example of what this could end up looking like lies immediately to the west, where Oakville has long taken a progressive approach toward parking.

Oakville's parking program had a revenue of $2.3-million in 2016, said Jim Barry, the director of municipal enforcement services, and is priced to be self-sustaining, paying for both its capital and operating costs.

There have been no parking minimums for non-residential buildings in downtown Oakville since 1981, an attempt to preserve the character of the area. The metered street parking and local lots have had a graduated system of time limits since at least 1990. The current set-up allows for stays that range, depending on the space, from less than 20 minutes to as long as nine hours.

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The quick-stop spots are good for people running in and out, said Anna Rea, whose clothing store Tocca Finita has been in downtown Oakville for 30 years, leaving other space for customers who need more time. She says the parking set-up works for most of her clients, although some don't like walking to the pay-and-display machine in the winter. What she'd really like, though, is discounted parking for people who work in the city centre.

Prof. Shoup agrees that employee discounts can help blunt public criticism of paid parking. So can Oakville's approach of using parking revenues to pay for itself. But Mark Simeoni, the city's director of planning services, acknowledged that traditional opinions about parking can be hard to overcome.

"Unless they're parking right in front, they're unhappy," he said.