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Bylaws that require parking drive up costs of housing

Parking lot in Vancouver. Photo: velkr0/Flickr

While climate disturbances wreak growing havoc across the planet, Canadian cities continue to mandate pro-car measures that drive up housing costs and contribute to global warming. Even the most walkable, bike-able and mass transit-oriented neighbourhoods still require parking spots to be built in new residences.

Finally, last week downtown Montreal eliminated parking requirements for new residential projects. Going forward, developers in the Ville-Marie borough will no longer be forced to build a certain number of parking spots per new unit.

Across the country, zoning laws require residential and commercial buildings to secure a certain number of spots based upon the number of dwellings or square feet of space. The city website explains that "Edmonton's Zoning Bylaw requires new developments, including homes, schools, offices and stores, to provide a minimum number of off-street parking spaces."

Toronto's website has a detailed list of parking requirements based upon various criteria. Per residential unit, Toronto usually requires between one and 1.4 parking spots while it's between 1.15 and 1.95 spaces in Mississauga.

Unlike most zoning ordinances that simply prohibit something, parking requirements are coercive. They tell developers exactly what to do. Cities don't ban the construction of apartments with one bedroom or bathroom but some ban the construction of apartments with only one parking spot.

Converting buildings to different uses can be difficult in places with substantial parking requirements. Sometimes a new business simply cannot move into a building that formerly housed an operation with lower parking requirements without adding more spaces (or obtaining a variance). 

Extensive parking requirements have reduced many architects to designing buildings around parking laws. "Form follows parking requirements," laments Donald Shoup author of The High Cost of Free Parking. A 2017 Corporate Knights article notes, "Ottawa's Hintonburg and the Glebe or Toronto's Kensington Market and Yorkville would never be built today. These special places were developed before current parking standards came into effect."

Since all units, irrespective of size, are generally required to have a parking spot, apartments have become larger and more expensive. No matter the size, Mississauga requires 1.15 spaces per (human) housing unit downtown, which acts "as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units." The financial and logistical burden created by parking requirements has restricted the rooming supply. "Zoning requires a home for every car, but ignores homeless people," writes Shoup. "By increasing the cost of housing, parking requirements make the real homelessness problem even worse." (It generally costs $40,000 to $60,000 to build an underground parking space in downtown Toronto while a surface spot in a low-density area can be built for as little as $2,000 to $8,000.)

Most significantly parking requirements spur private car travel. Parking and car travel are mutually reinforcing; more parking means more car travel and more car travel means increased demand for yet more parking.

Sometimes zoning requirements mandate commercial and office spaces provide a certain amount of free parking. Even when zoning laws don't mandate free parking, the saturated "market" creates an expectation that parking will be free. Would there be any need for parking requirements if people were willing to pay? Wouldn't profit-oriented businesses sell as much parking as they could charge for?

The right to affordable housing must be prioritized over the "need" for parking. Progressives currently running for positions in city governments across the country -- Saron Gebresellassi, Derrick O'Keefe, Jeremy Loveday, etc. -- should take up an issue that drives up housing costs while increasing private auto use. Let's build cheaper housing, more liveable cities and a healthier environment by ending parking requirements in city bylaws! That should be a slogan all sensible people can rally around.

Dubbed "Canada's version of Noam Chomsky" (Georgia Straight), “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), "in the mould of I. F. Stone" (Globe and Mail), "ever-insightful" (rabble.ca) and a "Leftist gadfly" (Ottawa Citizen), Yves Engler has published nine books.

Photo: velkr0/Flickr

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