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After Toronto allowed some on-street parking spaces on main roads to be used as patios during the pandemic, an analysis suggested that this generated far more revenue than in their original use.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail

When the creators of SimCity were designing their virtual world, they realized they couldn’t depict metropolises accurately: There would have to be so many parking lots the game wouldn’t be fun.

In real-life cities, the pandemic shone new light on these acres of urban land, leading many places to start using the space in more valuable ways. Meanwhile, a growing push for sustainability had already prompted fresh thinking around the vast swathes of land dedicated to car storage.

At an arena in Montreal, children now play in an area that had been used for parking. Several parking lots in Winnipeg have been turned into popular beer gardens. A wooden midrise building is being planned to replace a parking lot in downtown Toronto, where space for 37 vehicles is destined to become 100 rental apartments.

But this trend has progressed haltingly at times, where grand goals have fallen victim to local pushback.

Opinion: How cities built way too much parking – and made housing even more expensive

Vancouver’s plan to charge more to park the most polluting vehicles, part of the city’s response to climate change, failed by a narrow vote at council last October. Regina recently approved yet another downtown parking lot. Calgary announced plans to prevent residents of most large buildings from obtaining on-street parking permits, but has recently backtracked in the face of local opposition and instead will require fees of up to $150 a year. And Toronto appears set to retain most street parking in the redesign of Kensington Market, a downtown neighbourhood that attracts huge numbers of pedestrians.

However, the broader pattern is a gradual dismantling of the decades-long assumption that more parking is inherently better.

In 2020, Edmonton became the first Canadian city to remove minimum parking requirements on developments. These rules, which force developers to include set amounts of parking, are based in pseudo-science rather than rigorous standards, said academic Donald Shoup, author of the seminal book The High Cost of Free Parking.

More than a dozen Canadian cities have followed suit, removing parking minimums in at least part of their area, according to research by the advocacy group Strong Towns.

Perhaps the biggest recent shift in attitudes around parking has been the recognition of just how much value may be forgone by using desirable urban real estate as car storage.

After Toronto allowed some on-street parking spaces on main roads to be used as patios during the pandemic, an analysis suggested that this generated far more revenue than in their original use.

COVID-19 changed public spaces, but many cities have retreated

Researchers for an association of local business improvement areas estimated that customers spent $181-million in the repurposed parking spaces in the summer of 2021. The same spaces would have generated $3.7-million in parking revenue, according to the local parking authority, and even that modest figure assumed prepandemic levels of demand.

“Curbsides have long been one of the most important spaces in cities, and at the same time in many cities they’ve been somewhat of an afterthought, and there’s been kind of just this default of using them for parking,” said Alex Engel, spokesman for NACTO, an association of urban transportation officials that counts several Canadian cities as members.

Parking in residential areas tends to earn even less.

In Vancouver, only in the city’s west end is the price of a parking permit being allowed to rise to market rate – with current permit holders spared the increase. In other areas, an annual residential parking pass works out to as little as 14 cents a day. And in much of the city, no permit is required.

“New York City is perhaps the poster child for this, with large areas with very high-density, mixed-use land use but free on-street parking,” said Paul Barter, a consultant and founder of the blog and podcast Reinventing Parking.

“People scream blue murder: ‘You’re stealing our precious parking spaces.’ The irony is, those ‘precious spaces’ are free of charge. If they’re so damn precious, why are they free?”

Making public space available for far less than the equivalent real estate cost in expensive cities creates perverse incentives: For most residents it is much cheaper to fill their garage with stuff and leave the car on the street than to rent a storage unit.

And the unrealized value of a parking space can also be measured in less financial ways.

An April council vote in Toronto approving the wooden midrise building’s apartments at that downtown parking lot – more than half of which will be affordable – was part of a broader push to turn parking into entertainment venues, parks and cultural sites.

“Parking continues to play a purpose but not as it did in the 1950s, and so now’s the chance to think about other city-building objectives,” said former councillor Joe Cressy, who represented the area at the time of the vote.

“The core piece here is determining what is the biggest value for the city, in terms of its assets. And affordable housing and sustainability is a bigger value than parking.”

That same evolution of thinking has been playing out in Regina – at least in theory. Restaurants were allowed to put patios in the curb lane to help them weather the pandemic. Minimum parking requirements are waived for development downtown, where the city hopes to encourage density and boost anemic population growth.

But parking remains sacred for many on the Regina council. At the end of last month, the council voted to explore requiring more parking for some types of development. And earlier in September, council approved without debate a bylaw amendment allowing yet another parking lot downtown, where nearly half of the private land is used already as parking.

“It still feels like we’re doing 1950s planning,” said Vanessa Mathews, an associate professor in the department of geography and environmental studies at the University of Regina. “You end up with streets that are made up mostly of parking that don’t add any kind of vibrancy or interest. It’s certainly not sustainable.”

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