The Sunday magazine9:55 pmHow parking explains the world
Even if plain, boring parking lots seem to dominate the urban landscape, author Henry Grabar says it’s not too late to shift to a less car-centric society, which could open up parking lots for other needs, such as affordable housing.
“We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how cars and roads have changed our landscape, but we’ve paid very little attention to parking. And I think that’s a mistake,” said Grabar. The Sunday magazine guest host Robyn Bresnahan.
“A car is parked for 95 percent of its life. So when you think about the actual spatial impact of the car on the places where we live, you’re usually talking about parking.”
Grabar is a journalist for Slate and the author of a new book called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.
He says moving away from the need for parking could open more options for affordable housing and make cities more walkable.
But according to Grabar, there is too much parking and the planning around it is not getting the attention it needs.
According to Grabar, this is because parking is at the intersection of land use and transportation. He says the people responsible for transportation often don’t think about parking and, with the exception of residential developments, architects often don’t think about where to put cars until after a building has been designed.
The other reason Grabar says parking doesn’t get the thought it should:
“Parking just seems a bit bland and boring to people. I mean, parking lots are ugly, parking garages are unloved. It’s nobody’s favorite thing to do and nobody’s favorite thing to talk about,” said Grabar.
“I’ve written stories about affordable housing and transportation and stormwater flooding and architecture and under (everything), it seemed like there was a big problem that hadn’t been discussed, and that problem was parking. It seemed regardless of the question, was it park answer.”
Parking, parking everywhere, but no place for me
It may seem shocking considering you struggle to find an open spot at Costco or a spot outside your favorite restaurant, but Grabar says there’s actually an abundance of parking spaces in Canada.
This is according to research by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research Initiative at the University of Calgary in 2021there are 3.2 to 4.4 parking spaces for each vehicle in Canada.
The study found that about 40 percent of those spaces were for residential use, 26 percent were connected to the commercial and institutional sector, and the rest was roadside space.
Grabar says this is because we’ve formed our society around the need for cars.
“It’s absolutely essential to keep a job, go to school, go shopping, see your friends, and unless you have a parking space, you can’t get out of the car,” said Grabar.
And that, according to Grabar, is not in line with the parking situation.
“One of the reasons for this is, of course, that everyone wants to go to the same places at the same time and that parking takes up a lot of space and costs a lot of money,” says Grabar.
“The second is that some neighborhoods where people think there is a parking shortage actually have enough parking spaces. The problem is that it’s just poorly managed.”
He says that if there are no parking meters, the good spots are taken by locals or people who go to work and park there all day.
The other challenge is that some parking spaces are reserved for specific businesses, but people still can’t park there on a day or hour when the business is not open.
Grabar uses Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles as an example. The parking lot there is almost 11 times bigger than the baseball stadium. It means anyone can park on game day, but if the Dodgers aren’t playing, it’s just wasted space.
Grabar says creating more parking spaces isn’t the solution, and Dodger Stadium is a good example.
“If I ran the Dodgers, I would take that parking lot and build like 45,000 homes on it, because Los Angeles has a very serious housing crisis,” said Grabar.
“It seems a shame to reserve so much land in the heart of the city to store people’s private cars for a few hours at a time during the game.”
To do this, Grabar said it would require a connection to public transport, but would be easily affordable if the land were converted into housing.
There have already been changes across Canada. Edmonton became the first major Canadian city abolish minimum parking requirements in 2020. While accessible parking spaces for people with disabilities were still required, the change meant that developers and companies could decide how many other parking spaces to offer, rather than having to build a minimum amount.
The City of Toronto did the same in 2021. It found the construction cost for an underground parking space ranged from $48,000 to $160,000, and those costs were placed on residents, making units less affordable.
“Having no minimum parking requirement encourages people to find other ways, such as walking, biking and public transportation,” Michael Hain, a transportation planner with the city, told the CBC in November of that year.
“What we’re trying to avoid is telling developers to build more parking lots than people are willing to pay.”
The University of Calgary study found that parking costs were ultimately factored into what Canadians have to pay for their homes, and that the cost of using free parking provided by businesses was often factored into the goods they paid for at that business . .
The study also found that parking took up 25 percent of what people spend on their vehicles.
Solve parking problems
Ryan Lo says decisions like those made by Toronto and Edmonton are big steps forward. Lo is the co-executive director of Urban Minds, a non-profit organization based in Toronto that aims to create ways for young people to shape just and sustainable cities.
For the past two years, Lo and his organization have been working with Toronto Metropolitan University students to take a few parking spaces and turn them into mini parks as part of Park(honor) day in September a global effort to temporarily transform parking lots into social spaces to advocate for change.
“In a city like Toronto, real estate prices and land values are high, and so we have to be very mindful of every inch of space about how we maximize the use of what we can build,” said Lo.
And while Lo says cities are starting to make smarter parking choices, more needs to be done. He says municipalities need to put more money into public transportation systems and bike-sharing programs so people don’t rely so much on vehicles.
Lo says young people are already thinking more about these things.
“This generation of urban planners recognizes the detrimental impact of over-reliance on the car and the impact on land use, such as the overabundance of parking spaces in our cities,” said Lo.
But the biggest setback, he says, comes from the residents.
“It’s really about people changing their way of thinking about how people can move around and how our land use needs to change accordingly,” Lo said.
But Grabar says if that mindset starts to change, it could make a big difference in changing what Canadian cities look like.
“As these neighborhoods get denser, they will gain enough residents to support walkable amenities that they didn’t support before, starting with things like cafes and groceries. But eventually also public institutions like schools and libraries,” Grabar said.
“Most trips are made in neighborhoods. And if we give people ways to make those trips safely without a car, they will.”