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Sunday 18 August 2019
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Commentary

Fix parking, fix neighbourhoods

What’s more important, ensuring that cars have a place to sleep, or ensuring that people do?

In our society, the rules are written to favour the provision of convenient parking for cars over the provision of affordable and convenient housing for all people.

When the Economist magazine writes multiple articles on the perils of parking, including “Aparkalypse now,” and “How not to create traffic jams, pollution and urban sprawl,” you need to pay attention. Few issues are as mundane, yet as contentious among the public, as frustrating for planners to deal with, and as influential on the way that neighbourhoods develop.

When you construct a building, local planning regulations dictate that you must provide a minimum number of parking spaces, typically on the same lot of land. For instance, apartments generally require 1.5 parking spaces per unit. This means if you build one unit you provide two parking spaces (the number is rounded up), but if you build two units, you provide three parking spaces.

It is a seemingly innocuous, yet blunt, approach to ensuring that people have a convenient place to store their cars.

Of course, as described last week, the urban eco-system is a complex thing. Obvious solutions often fail, because the implications themselves are often not immediately obvious.

A regulation-sized parking spot is 150 square feet. The aisle needed to manoeuvre cars in and out of a spot generally takes up as much space as the parking spot itself. Therefore, catering for each parked car can require 300 square feet of space, and just two parked cars can require as much space as a one-bedroom apartment. This renders a lot of multi-family housing construction projects infeasible.

The alternative is to follow a vast number of jurisdictions, and counter-intuitively abolish minimum on-site parking requirements; maybe even impose a maximum on-site parking limit in places that are already convenient to navigate on foot, on bike, or are served well by public transportation.

Let people pay for parking, a non-essential good, if and when needed. This could uncouple the price of parking from the price of goods and services. If people were tangibly paying the true cost of parking, their car usage and transportation choices would not be skewed by pro-automobile planning policies.

Space-intensive minimum parking requirements, introduced since 1987 or earlier, and at a time when vehicle ownership was far lower, would have catalysed a cycle in which neighbourhoods would grow increasingly less compact, and less public-transit, bike, and pedestrian-friendly. Therefore, the need to own and use a car and provide parking would keep increasing.

Our car ownership rate is now relatively high, but it is not universal. There are many who do not own or habitually use a vehicle. But requiring parking regardless means the high cost of providing parking is hidden, but ultimately paid for by everyone, in the form of increased housing costs, commercial rents, prices at the supermarket, and prices of tickets at the movie theatre – the list goes on.

Instead, parking can be provided on-street through metered parking, or off-site in paid, shared, (usually) multi-storey parking facilities.

The former, where appropriate, has many benefits, including providing a protective barrier for pedestrians between the pavement and moving cars, subconsciously causing slower and more careful driving, generating public revenue, and reducing space dedicated to parking, as no additional aisle is needed.

In the case of the latter, multi-storey facilities are more efficient, and, depending on initial design, can even be converted to other uses if parking demand subsides in the future. The government has put in place incentives for the private sector to build these structures. A recently opened parking facility on Independence Square may be one of those beneficiary projects.

But like many projects begun good intentions, the outcome is not necessarily benign. There is an increasing number of high-capacity parking facilities being concentrated in a small area of downtown PoS, which increases congestion by cars trying to access the facilities, and is deteriorating the character of the immediate surroundings.

A better approach is a more dispersed distribution of these facilities – something that the Town and Country Planning Division should require – so that the benefits are distributed, and the negative effects are not concentrated and magnified.

In an area like Belmont, with small lots and narrow streets, if parking were to be placed in a handful of dispersed parking facilities, rather than having to be provided on every individual lot, the development prospects would improve. Higher density, more affordable residential development would become increasingly feasible, through better efficiency in the utilisation of limited land space. Depopulation, induced greatly by these market-skewing parking requirements, in this and other urban neighbourhoods could be reversed, and neighbourhood vitality could increase.

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