Edmonton should eliminate minimum parking requirements—other cities should follow suit

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, May 29, 2019
Edmonton should eliminate minimum parking requirements—other cities should follow suit

Edmonton city council is considering eliminating minimum parking requirements for new developments. This would be a marked shift towards more flexible transportation and land-use policy for the city.

Eliminating mandatory minimum parking requirements not only gives people more say over how they live their lives (and use their property) but it could help increase housing affordability.

First, what are parking requirements and why are they a problem?

Broadly speaking, minimum parking requirements are obligatory onsite parking spaces imposed by the municipalities and included in any new development of homes or businesses. Currently Edmonton and Calgary both generally require at least one parking space per residential unit, with variations based on housing type and location. The same is true for most Canadian cities.

There are two core problems with this approach.

First, such requirements assume that city hall knows better than citizens and businesses how all people want to get around (by car) and the “highest and best use” for lots. Rather than relying on bureaucratic assumptions, municipal governments should let homebuyers, renters and businesses dictate what is valuable to them.

Second, minimum parking requirements are costly. Few have written more on this than UCLA urban planning Professor Donald Shoup who in estimated the cost of parking structures in 12 American cities in 2012, and found the average aboveground space in the cities examined cost $24,000 while the average underground space cost $34,000. Again, it’s not immediately obvious why people should be forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a parking spot they may not use.

In addition to direct costs, there are several indirect costs.

For example, mandating parking can leave less room for other uses such as housing. It can also make it more challenging to provide lower cost “missing middle” housing such as four-storey walk-ups where building underground parking may not be practical and/or room for surface parking may be unavailable. The burden of these mandates is especially problematic in denser urban neighbourhoods where the highest and best use of land is more likely to be a building than a parking lot. Mandating parking that crowds out housing units can help push people out to more car-dependent neighbourhoods, which can further increase demand for urban parking spaces.

Price signals are better suited to determine the supply of parking rather than a complex web of subsidies and regulations, especially given how uncertain future demand for parking will be as car-sharing and ride-sharing through services such as Uber become more mainstream. Markets forces are more likely to approximate the ideal volume of parking than bylaws.

While eliminating mandatory parking minimums may seem far-fetched to some, several North American cities have already taken this step including Cincinnati, Buffalo and Hartford. Some Canadian cities have also at various points loosened minimum parking requirements. For instance, Calgary allowed a 167-unit condo building in East Village to be built without any parking.

Rather than forcing developers to build parking spaces residents may not need or want, and forcing those residents to pay for them, governments should allow market forces to determine how much parking is necessary. This would be a positive move by Edmonton city council, and other Canadian cities should follow Edmonton’s example.