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The fire hydrant located in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren CalabreseDarren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

A coalition of firefighters, city engineers and administrators is proposing a novel solution to city parking woes.

Surrey Fire Chief Len Garis says shrinking the no-stopping zone around fire hydrants could create hundreds of new parking spots in congested cities.

Garis said his department began investigating whether five metres was necessary after the city’s engineer said he was reviewing parking availability in a higher density neighbourhood.

Read also: Why Mississauga wants to charge for parking

“I said, it’s been like that my entire career, so I’m not sure. But let’s take a look at it,” Garis said.

“What we found is that it could be half that.”

Setbacks were created so that firefighters could see and access them easily. Most rules in North America restrict parking within three to five metres of a hydrant, Garis said.

In Canada, laws vary by province and municipality. While British Columbia shares the same standards as Montreal and Calgary, Ontario allows cars to park within three metres of a hydrant.

The National Fire Protection Association in the United States recommends a minimum buffer of five feet, or about 1.5 metres.

Garis, who also teaches at the University of the Fraser Valley, co-authored a study with John Lehmann and Alex Tyakoff, who are members of the fire department, using a mock curb and hydrant.

They found parked cars only got in the way when the setback was two metres or less.

The study argues that with the advancement of GPS mapping and related technologies, along with local drivers’ awareness of hydrant locations, visibility is less of an issue in compact urban settings. The space doesn’t need to be large enough for a fire engine to park either, since they rarely pull right up to the curb, and instead block traffic lanes.

“As public safety professionals or government professionals, we should be looking at things that we do and making sure, from time to time, that they are actually delivering the results that they should,” Garis said.

But increasing parking may also mean more cars on the road.

More parking spaces means more people choose to drive, says a 2016 study published in the Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, which reviewed data from nine U.S. cities dating to 1960.

“It was found that an increase in parking provision from 0.1 to 0.5 parking space per person was associated with an increase in automobile mode share of roughly 30 percentage points,” the study said.

“This finding offers compelling evidence that parking provision is a cause of citywide automobile use.”

Joszef Dioszeghy, general manager of engineering for the City of Coquitlam, said reducing the no-go zone in front of hydrants could free up hundreds of parking spots in the municipality.

There are about 1,900 mid-block hydrants in Coquitlam, he said. While some are next to crosswalks and other elements that would prevent new parking spots from appearing, many have the wiggle room to make a difference.

Dioszeghy said parking demand and housing demand go hand in hand.

The Fire Chiefs Association of B.C., Metro Vancouver Regional Engineers Advisory Committee and Regional Administrators Advisory Committee have endorsed shrinking the setback zone.

“Our intent is to reduce that distance by a permissive way,” Dioszeghy said.

That means changing the Motor Vehicle Act in a way that allows each municipality to change the setback zone on a case-by-case basis.

The Ministry of Transportation said it is willing to consider reducing the clearance zone around hydrants, but the Union of B.C. Municipalities is the best forum to bring the proposal forward.

If the resolution reaches the union’s convention in September, it will be the first proposal of its kind, spokesman Paul Taylor said.

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