I acknowledge I am not an expert in urban planning, just an engaged citizen.
On September 6th, Guelph’s council is discussing reducing parking requirements and charging for on-street parking in the downtown core. So, I decided to read the whole Downtown Parking Master Plan and the Staff’s Report on the Downtown Parking Master Plan. Below are my thoughts using ideas from Donald Shoup’s book High Cost to Free Parking and Henry Grabar’s book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. These are excellent books that I highly recommend.
My reaction to Staff Report on Downtown Parking Master Plan
Good: Reduction in minimum parking requirements and the development of a Payment-in-lieu of Parking program.
Bad: Not recommending charging for on-street parking (but I can understand trying to time implementation of paid parking with the Downtown infrastructure upgrades)
Cars are not people
Cars are just one tool among many (walking/biking/mobility scooter/transit etc.) to move people around.
This is fundamental but too often I see the sentiment that encouraging car traffic equates to economic performance. That sentiment is in the Staff Report where they recommend using property taxes to fund free on-street parking because of worries about the “economic fragility of downtown businesses”. In fact, study after study suggests the opposite is true; reducing car usage improves economic performance.
Car parking encourages people to drive
Car parking (especially free car parking) has the same effect as adding car lanes to roads; adding car parking (or car lanes) encourages more people to drive. As long as car parking is more convenient and cheaper than other options, people will choose to drive. Furthermore, car parking (especially off-street parking minimums) forces cities to spread out because cars take up so much space. Due to the large distances between locations, all other transportation options (walking/biking/transit etc) become more difficult compared to driving.
In our current climate crisis, we can not continue encouraging people to drive. Even when all gas powered cars are replaced by electric cars, we still need to discourage driving because of the detrimental effects of cars on our health and cities.
To be clear, there is a difference between allowing cars to access cities and encouraging people to drive. Cars will still be allowed to access cities.
Charge for on-street parking
Free parking in high demand areas creates a tragedy of the commons problem. A tragedy of the commons problem is when people have unrestricted access to a finite and valuable resource. Here, the incentive for individuals is to over-use the resource, causing total resource depletion for all users. For car parking, the tragedy of the commons problem manifests in people parking for many hours, reduced traffic flow, and lots of cars cruising around searching for a free spot1. In fact, for a similar sized area to Guelph’s downtown area, free parking in Westwood Village, California caused people to drive 1.5 million excess km every year (equivalent to 38 trips around the world)2 just for searching for parking spots. This cruising around produces a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide and local air pollution and is dangerous for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Charging for parking solves the tragedy of the commons problem. The best method is dynamic pricing where the price of parking varies to maintain an approximately 80% parking occupancy rate (parking prices increase when there is high demand and decrease when there is low demand). An 80% parking occupancy rate ensures anyone driving close to their destination can find a parking spot immediately, instead of cruising around.
Use parking benefit districts
Charging for parking is politically difficult to implement because people don’t like paying to park. Parking benefit districts can make the politics easier.
Parking benefit districts are when the revenue from on-street parking goes to the neighborhood where that parking is located3. The neighborhood then uses the revenue to improve the neighborhood. Parking benefit districts create political momentum for charging for parking because local people feel the effects of the revenue. The extra revenue can be a huge boon to the local neighborhood that can encourage more people to visit the area, thus improving economic performance.
Finally, parking benefit districts that exist on the periphery of downtown cores have the potential to replace expensive parking structures to house employees/visitors driving from places with little to no transit links4. Employees/visitors would still have relatively cheap parking (with a short walk involved) to access the downtown core and the local parking benefit district would receive valuable revenue.
Deal with chicken and egg situation
A (somewhat warranted) common concern with reducing/removing off-street parking minimums is where will all the cars go. Many people don’t want to lose access to the parking spots right next to where they live or visit. So, people respond by stating that biking/transit needs to be improved before we can reduce/remove parking minimums. I absolutely agree that walking/biking/transit needs to be improved in Guelph (bus rapid transit lanes are definitely needed).
However, we run into a chicken and the egg situation. The current parking minimums force cities to spread out because cars take up so much room to store and move. Distances between places are far apart making walking/biking/transit difficult and dangerous.
So which comes first? Reducing car parking spaces? Improving walking/biking/transit?
Both! Reduce/remove parking minimums AND heavily invest in walking/biking/transit infrastructure AT THE SAME TIME.
Guelph has prevented, to a certain extent, people parking for free for several hours (i.e. employees) by using license plate recognition cameras to enforce the 2 hour complimentary parking. ↩
For Guelph, the excess kilometers driven due to cruising is likely lower but still large. ↩
The revenue can be split between the local neighborhood and the city. ↩
Local residents can obtain parking permits but any non-residents would have to pay to park. ↩