How Free is Your Parking?

Frontier Centre, Local Government, Publications, Transportation, Urbanization

“Somehow, the urban land use with the biggest footprint and a profound effect on the transportation system has been invisible to scholars in every discipline.”
– Donald Shoup, The High Cost of Free Parking (2005)


Drivers in North America typically park their cars for free: Ninety nine per cent of private vehicle trips end in a free car park. As a result, it is not surprising that most people expect parking to be free at work, the shops, at school, and practically everywhere in between. At face value this expectation appears reasonable; surface parking is indeed easy to construct and it incurs minimal maintenance costs. This analysis unfortunately omits one important consideration: Parking takes up large areas of extremely valuable urban land. Using land for parking therefore reduces the land available for other, potentially more valuable, uses. Sensible developers should therefore consider the benefi ts and costs associated with providing parking, and set the level of parking accordingly. Unfortunately, the current approach to managing parking is anything but sensible.

Instead of allowing developers to weigh up the costs and benefits of providing parking, Canada’s municipalities enforce blunt ordinances, or parking regulations, that require developments to provide large amounts of parking. This article looks at the origins of these parking regulations and discusses how they impact on our towns and cities. By soaking up large tracts of Canada’s most productive urban land, this article will argue that parking regulations suppress economic development, undermine the transport system, and disadvantage low-income households. To finish, this article presents an alternative approach to parking management that involves rolling back parking regulations and instead relying on prices to manage demand.

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    Stuart Donovan, is employed as a transportation engineer with MRC, a multi-disciplinary transport planning consultancy that operates in Canada, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Stuart is based in Auckland and advises public and private sector clients on transportation policy, urban design, and economic development.