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the road ahead

If you’ve ever driven around for twenty minutes looking for free parking, you might, without realizing it, be making your city worse for everyone, a Vancouver economist said.

“It’s this mythical quest for a free parking spot that must be out there – people feel entitled to it,” said Werner Antweiler, professor of economics at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “There are areas where traffic flows have really slowed down because of congestion from people cruising to find free parking – and they’re emitting pollutants into the air.”

Street parking takes expensive urban land that could be used for pedestrians, parks, transit and bike lanes and uses it to store vehicles – often for free, Antweiler said.

“Any resource that’s free gets overused,” Antweiler said. “That’s an economic truism.”

Last month, Vancouver’s city council narrowly voted down a proposal to require an annual permit for overnight street parking everywhere in the city – an expansion from the roughly 10 per cent of the city that requires parking permits now.

Some opponents called the proposed permits a tax that was punishing people for driving.

Vancouver’s permit would have cost $45 a year, or $5 a year for local residents. Visitors would have to pay $3 a night.

The plan would also have charged an annual pollution charge of $500 or $1,000 for gas-guzzlers with a model year of 2023 or any year after. Electric vehicles, hybrids and many smaller gas-powered cars, including sedans and compact SUVs, wouldn’t have had to pay under the plan.

The city expected the plan could raise $60-million by 2025 to help fund projects in the city’s emergency climate action plan, including more protected bike lanes, more EV charging stations and more bus routes.

In his deciding vote axing the plan, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, who’s facing an election next year, said it wasn’t fair because it didn’t charge people who have driveways to park in.

Not everyone needs parking?

Some critics of Vancouver’s plan said it wasn’t fair to low-income residents, but about 30 per cent of people earning under $50,000 a year don’t have access to their own car, said Meghan Winters, professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“There’s this narrative that everybody needs parking,” Winter said. “But there’s a large part of the population who doesn’t need parking – whether it’s kids who don’t drive, seniors or people who choose not to drive.”

Winters thinks it makes sense to charge people for parking.

“If you think of what the land is worth in Vancouver, this is very valuable land that we’re deciding to store vehicles on.”

Most cities don’t need as much parking as governments think, Winter said.

Earlier this year, Edmonton removed a rule requiring a minimum number of parking spots for new buildings.

“There’s tons of unused parking space in buildings,” Winter said. “It just adds to the cost of housing.”

That rule change lets developers decide how much parking they may need, so they’re not stuck building parking that will sit empty.

When there are fewer places to park for free, people either pay for parking or they turn to transit, cycling or walking to get there, Antweiler said.

While businesses often worry that they’ll lose customers if there’s not free parking in front, that doesn’t usually happen, Antweiler said.

“Look at King St. in Toronto,” Antweiler said. “When road and parking space is rededicated, it makes those areas more friendly to pedestrians and it attracts more people than it turns away.”

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