parking lot
Illustration by Brandon Celi

More and more Canadian cities are coming to a simple conclusion: they’ve got too much darn parking. As a recent City of Ottawa video quips: “It’s not the 1960s anymore: parking rules need to grow up.”

Indeed, unique neighbourhoods like 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. They are more human-scaled and accessible for pedestrians and cyclists, qualities that make them so adored by locals and tourists alike.

Many zoning requirements in North America were introduced between the 1960s and 1980s when driving was the preferred method of transportation. Over the decades, these parking bylaws haven’t been overhauled to account for our changing preferences and car use behaviour. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that a growing number of North American municipalities are overhauling parking rules in an effort to build transit-oriented development, get more people out of their cars and reduce parking lots.


Pounding the pavement

In October 2016, a proposal to update zoning along Hamilton’s upcoming Light Rail Transit (LRT) corridor went to committee. The proposal included plans to reduce minimum parking space requirements and introduce a parking maximum for the first time.

Hamilton is addressing the big parking conundrum many Canadian municipalities are facing: Can we reclaim our cities from the vast surface parking lots of asphalt that dominate valuable space? What’s the best way to create walkable communities along transit lines? Some cities are trying to do just this by tweaking their current parking requirements.


Build less, charge less

Parking has a major impact on a neighbourhood’s urban design, walkability and affordability. Most city bylaws include minimum vehicle parking requirements that mandate the amount of space required to ensure enough parking for employees, residents and patrons.

To comply with these rules, developers in dense neighbourhoods that are close to convenient and accessible transit would need to opt for underground parking. Underground space liberates expensive surface parking lots and makes it available for other uses such as offices, retail, homes and public spaces. But it can be very expensive, costing anywhere from $40,000 up to $60,000 per space in places like downtown Toronto. This is as much as 15 times more expensive than surface parking. One analysis from Portland, Oregon, found buildings that provided underground parking charged rents up to 63 per cent above those without a parking option.

Surface parking in low-density areas costs only $2,000 to $8,000 per space. As a result, many businesses choose to locate in low-density neighbourhoods with plenty of cheap surface parking for customers and employees. Paid parking for downtown retail stores simply can’t compete with the free parking offered by big-box shopping in sprawling suburban areas.

Car manufacturers are concerned that younger people aren’t buying as many automobiles as previous generations. But it isn’t just young people and car manufacturers who have been affected by this change in transportation preference. Toronto real estate developers have also noted a shift away from car ownership. Some have even been left with unsold parking spots they’re required to build as part of zoning bylaws.


One world united by asphalt

Parking is a global problem and cities around the world are responding to changes in parking and transportation attitudes in different ways. In England, the City of London has eliminated minimum parking requirements. Seattle removed parking requirements for areas in the downtown and transit-friendly neighbourhoods. New York City has also eliminated parking minimums for low-income housing projects near transit.

A number of Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) municipalities are using different approaches to take back the asphalt from parking spaces. Removing parking spots improves affordability of transit-oriented developments for construction and homebuyers, and makes more space available for services such as sidewalks, bike lanes and parks.

Most GTHA municipalities require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces per built residential unit. This cost inevitably gets passed to homebuyers. In Toronto, the parking requirements are between 1 and 1.4 spaces per unit. In Mississauga, they’re between 1.15 and 1.95 parking spaces per unit.

Some municipalities have lower parking requirements for designated downtown zones. The City of Hamilton, for example, recognized that areas well served by transit require less parking, so it is greatly reducing parking requirements for downtown areas and eliminating them entirely in some retail zones.

With construction of the Markham Town Centre currently underway, the city embarked on a long-term parking strategy with the focus on providing off street, centralized public parking garages to help overcome the financial disincentives for developers to provide structured parking. This strategy limits the amount and location of surface parking, requires two-thirds of parking to be located within a structure and has introduced on-street paid parking.

The municipalities of Markham and Vaughan, just north of Toronto, have begun employing parking maximums for their transit accessible downtown centres. This can help reduce automobile dependence and housing costs by allowing developers to provide the appropriate level of parking for a multi-unit development given its location, walkability and access to transit. Hamilton is introducing maximums along its LRT corridor.

The City of Mississauga’s parking bylaw requires 1.15 spaces per downtown unit, regardless of size. However, applying a parking ratio that is the same for both small and large units may act as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units.

More recently, municipalities have begun varying parking requirements by unit size, as car ownership often increases with unit size. The City of Hamilton, for example, requires only 0.3 spaces for units less than 50 square metres.



In addition to lowering parking minimums, Seattle has proposed regulations that would require developers to provide residents in new developments near transit areas with bus passes, car-share memberships, bike-share memberships or similar services. And in Calgary, the city council recently approved Cowtown’s first car-free condo where new buyers receive a new bicycle, free bike parking and credit with a local car-sharing service.

The City of Vaughan has updated its zoning bylaw to include bicycle parking requirements. Unlike the rest of the city, developments within the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre are required to provide bicycle parking for most uses such as commercial, institutional and multi-unit residential. The number of bicycle spaces depends on the ground floor area of a development but a minimum of six is required for most uses.

And of course, Toronto’s significant expansion of its bike-share program is expected to result in even more residents becoming cyclists.


Parking our growth problems

With the updated provincial growth plan proposing greater intensification targets, especially around transit, municipalities are concerned about how these rules will impact development costs and housing affordability.

As Hamilton is showing, updating municipal bylaws and zoning is one of many tools that can help build more compact transit-oriented neighbourhoods and create the conditions to build more affordable family-friendly homes in desirable communities.

Changing these habits can improve quality of life and improve home affordability. In the GTHA, these types of strategies can help municipalities succeed economically while curbing sprawl and protecting the Greenbelt.

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