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A woman walks past an empty parking lot at Metropolis at Metrotown shopping mall, where only a few stores remain open due to COVID-19, in Burnaby, B.C., on Sunday, April 12, 2020.

DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Politicians in several of Canada’s biggest cities are going after a little-known planning policy, arguing that abolishing rules around how much parking must be included in new developments will lead gradually to cleaner, more liveable and possibly cheaper communities.

Edmonton council voted unanimously in the summer to remove minimum parking requirements and mandate only accessible and loading spots. This leaves it to the market to determine the amount of regular parking.

City staff in Toronto are looking at the same issue. And in Vancouver, staff are expected to present recommendations within months around ending parking minimums.

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Vancouver Councillor Sarah Kirby-Yung, whose motion started the process in that city, is confident council will back wide-ranging parking policy changes.

“Very early in the new year, after the holidays, we would expect to implement Phase 1, which would be the elimination of minimum parking requirements,” she said. “And then the second phase, which is recommending maximum parking requirements … would be later next year.”

The councillor said that such a shift could potentially lead to more affordable housing, if developers pass on the savings from not having to build parking. It could also spur more walkable neighbourhoods, provided council allows mixed-use areas to flourish.

“You can’t take out parking and not have neighbourhood grocery stores for people, for example,” Ms. Kirby-Yung said. “You’re not building underground parking, can you do something more innovative and interesting and have street-level kind of neighbourhood-based retail or other amenities.”

More transportation stories

Bikes, pedestrians and the 15-minute city: How the pandemic is propelling urban revolutions

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Electric avenue: Three ways governments should invest now to decarbonize urban transportation

Although these attitude shifts predate the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic has brought scrutiny to whether parking is the best use of space. Some municipalities allowed patios to open in road-side parking spaces, others replaced parking with bicycle lanes. In many cities, sharp drops in demand highlighted how much of parking already existed and added weight to growing questions about whether it is wise to add more supply.

Toronto Councillor Paul Ainslie said he was shocked to learn from staff this summer that his city’s parking requirements hadn’t been substantially revised since 1986.

“I think there’s a lot of things changing and I just think, you know, the cost of [providing] parking needs to be looked it, if it’s getting so expensive to build and if people aren’t really going to be driving as much,” he said, noting, for instance, that teenagers are now less keen to get their driver’s licence.

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Two parking ticket vending machines placed outside a booth where a parking lot on Richmond St. East, where an attendant used to work, are photographed on Nov 10 2020.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“We need to get our head around what are really the parking minimums that we need in the city … and give the planners more freedom to make decisions around that.”

Critics of parking minimums say cities need flexibility and nimbleness to bounce back from the pandemic and prepare for the next shock.

“Part of that conversation [around ending parking minimums] was certainly in the vein of, you know, economic recovery post-COVID, what can we do to help to remove barriers to development,” said Trevor Illingworth, a senior planner on Edmonton’s zoning bylaw team.

“Especially if we’re talking about the context of those main street areas, small businesses being able to adaptively reuse those spaces or affordable housing … that’s becoming, I think, much more important in our sort of COVID times.”

Developers in many cities have traditionally been able to cut a deal with municipal planning staff and build less parking than the rules require, in return for providing other urban benefits such as green space. But this still incentivizes building parking as the default scenario. And Mr. Illingworth noted that securing such an arrangement between developer and city means more red tape, and that adding another layer to the approval process gives opponents of a proposal one more chance to fight it.

Parking minimums date back decades and detail with great precision how many spaces must to be provided for various types of development. While the origins of some of their formulae are unknown, they specify parking requirements for all kinds of business and residence. According to Toronto’s rules, for example, a multiunit residential building such as a condominium must provide 1.2 spaces for each dwelling.

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While requirements vary from city to city, among the many scenarios they may cover are the number of spaces needed per square metre of restaurant, per congregant at a church or per lane of a bowling alley.

A parking meter in Toronto, Ont.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Intended to ensure that a new development or business meets its own parking demand, minimums have significant urban effects. By assuming that people will use a car and have a guaranteed place to park, minimums can induce driving. By bundling the cost of parking into a development, they make drivers and non-drivers alike pay for it.

Minimums can also inflate the cost of construction by requiring more parking than customers or residents might actually want. And they can make it hard to repurpose old buildings. Unless the city makes an exception, if there is not space for the mandated minimum parking required by the new use, or if adding that parking makes the conversion cost-ineffective, the proposed change may be derailed.

For policy expert Donald Shoup, the parking guru whose ardent fans refer to themselves as Shoupistas and whose 765-page book The High Cost of Free Parking is the seminal text on the subject, minimums are as anachronistic as doctors from a previous era using lead as a curative.

“I suspect that, looking backward a century from now, urban planners will see minimum parking requirements to have been no better than physicians now see lead therapy: a poison prescribed as a cure,” he wrote in a 1999 journal article that foreshadowed his book, which appeared six years later.

“Like lead therapy, minimum parking requirements produce a local benefit – they ensure that every land use can accommodate all the cars ‘drawn to the site.’ But this local benefit comes at a high price to the whole city.”

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