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Large parking lots create heat islands, and traffic congestion created by vehicles searching for parking increases greenhouse gas emissions.Getty Images

The only thing the game Monopoly got right about “Free Parking” is that the spot is like a blank space. You don’t pay “the bank,” you don’t receive anything, and you don’t move forward.

In reality, parking is a costly, sprawling contributor to the climate and affordable housing crises that city and provincial governments view as blank spaces with potential to make transformative change.

Some cities are removing requirements for parking to increase safer access for cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders. Other cities, built around the culture of the car, are as slow to change as the traffic created by people looking for parking.

“The problem with parking is that the car is a very space-consumptive device,” says James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University’s Schulich School of Business, noting that that average parking spot takes up about 350 square feet.

The Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research initiative at the University of Calgary reported that private vehicles are parked 95 per cent of the time and take up some of the most expensive land in Canada.

“Add up all the space a car requires in a city, and in some cities that may approximate 50 per cent of the available land,” says Mr. McKellar.

Given that the average parking space can range in building cost from $20,000 to more than $60,000, depending on location, vehicle storage poses innovative solutions for cost savings, according to the Parking Reform Network.

One of the most striking examples of the cost to land and financial resources is the world’s largest parking lot at the West Edmonton Mall, with 20,000 parking spaces taking up more than seven million square feet. The mall’s parking lot could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build, based on current parking pricing.

Edmonton is a favourite reference for Donald Shoup, distinguished research professor at the department of urban planning at UCLA and author of The High Cost of Free Parking.

“Edmonton is famous for making mistakes and getting things right,” says Dr, Shoup, explaining that the city once required off-street parking – an enclosed parking lot or garage – for almost every new enterprise.

However, as of July 2020, Edmonton became the first city in the country to remove minimum on-site parking requirements, giving decision-making power to homeowners, businesses and developers about how much parking they need.

Dr. Shoup says that with minimum parking requirements that are anything but standard, vehicle storage spreads the city apart and makes free parking seem like a right rather than a privilege.

“For Canada and the U.S., the minimum requirement for the average restaurant is 10 spaces for every 1,000 square feet, which means the parking is three times the size of the restaurant,” Dr. Shoup points out.

Add up all the space a car requires in a city, and in some cities, that may approximate 50 per cent of the available land.

James McKellar, professor of real estate and infrastructure at Schulich School of Business, York University

In 2020, a group of transportation experts, sustainability specialists, urban planners and concerned citizens organized the Parking Reform Network, which identifies arbitrary parking requirements to reduce traffic, alleviate greenhouse gas emissions, improve safety and celebrate success stories from cities like Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Buffalo, to name a few.

For example, Calgary eliminated minimum parking requirements in 2020 in hopes of encouraging walking, cycling and transit, and in Toronto, city-owned Green P parking (operated by the Toronto Parking Authority) is 100-per-cent self-sustained through parking fees, and returns 75 per cent of its net income to the city.

In 2022, Bike Share Toronto, also operated by the city’s parking authority, reported 4.6 million rides – a record since the launch of the program in 2011.

While these wins are reversing urban-planning challenges, for Tony Jordan, president of the Parking Reform Network, the problems with parking reach far beyond the resources it consumes – large lots create heat islands, and the traffic congestion created by vehicles searching for parking increases greenhouse gas emissions.

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy estimates 30 per cent of fuel wasted in the U.S. is due to drivers looking for parking – the equivalent of 18.6 billion lbs. of carbon emissions annually.

“We’re not about getting rid of cars but reducing the amount of time people need a car,” says Mr. Jordan.

Reforming city policy could provide new revenue from parking that can be earmarked for reducing carbon dependency, he says, and reducing parking for bus and bike lanes or redeveloping a parking lot for housing are opportunities to increase the value of nearby parking to achieve revenue stability.

But from an urban-planning perspective, repurposing infrastructure that already exists can be a double-edged sword.

“We’re trying to retrofit for pedestrians and cycling but still keep the roads,” explains Mr. McKellar. “Most roads are a certain width. If anything, we’ve been making sidewalks smaller.”

He cites the Bike Share Toronto program as an example of a good idea with a hitch.

“The city managed to squeeze in the Bike Share parking stations, but they don’t make the same space for people who already own bikes,” he says.

“We need to better use what we already have.”

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