The delicate art of parking provisioning

(with apologies to Trent Carlson)

How people live in cities is changing, faster in some places than others.  In general, people are driving less.  But car ownership is still quite prevalent and it remains a key means for people to get themselves, their families, and their stuff from A to B and C and D around the city.  Even though urban travel by bike, transit and foot is on the rise, cars are not likely to disappear.  They are too handy in certain circumstances.

So what to do with cars when we’re not using them?  That is a key challenge for cities these days.  Here’s what I mean.

First, lets talk about surface parking lots and above-grade parking structures.  These are ugly and suck the life out of the streetscape.  Nothing interesting (or at least good and interesting) is ever going on there (drug deals and break ins are interesting, but not in a good way).  So, the answers are either street parking or underground parking, or typically both.  But….

Starting with underground parkades, these are expensive to build.  They therefore can make it uneconomical to build many apartment, office and retail structures unless the highest rents (or condo sale prices) can be achieved.  Some cities are experimenting with reducing parking requirements for apartments in core areas where most residents will walk or take transit, in part to keep the costs down so new rental can be built.  But this isn’t practical in most neighbourhoods, even walkable ones, as a typical couple or family will have a car.  This is an unresolved dilemma in cities–adding residents to average communities still requires room to park a car.

Next, street parking. This works well if there is enough room on the streets for residents and visitors to a neighbourhood.  In detached, single-family neighbourhoods this is the case.  But in slightly more dense areas, there isn’t always enough.  Especially if a prominent shopping street is nearby.

In a trendy walkable neighbourhood, many people will drive to the area, park, and shop. The retailers rely on these non-neighbour customers, so need there to be parking.  But if the number of people living in the area increases, without more parking places, suddenly none are available for retailers unless we either add underground parking (too expensive), surface parking (too ugly), go to parking meters to keep people moving.

Parking meters.  It seems that some city halls have figured out a science of parking meters.  Charge enough so that there is usually an empty spot every couple of blocks, and then people don’t circle around looking for parking.  I was shocked to read New York City still has lots of free parking.  We’re also starting to see variable rate meters that adjust the costs with the time of day and congestion.  I like this approach.  I’d rather pay more and have a spot available when I need one, than have to drive all over looking for free parking (I put a value on my time, and it’s more than $2 for 15 minutes!)

But parking meters work at destinations, not at home.  So we’re back to the challenge of urban development right now: the delicate art of balancing enough room for cars while also improving the livability and walkability of communities, and keeping costs of new housing down so that homes can be built for the non-super-rich.


How is the parking dilemma affecting your community?

What examples are you seeing of the delicate art of balancing parking needs with other urban requirements and challenges?


  1. I’ve always liked the idea of sharing cars in urban settings, or alternatively, renting when you need to. I think our mindsets need to change more than our infrastructure. Once we can change how we think about transportation, the rest will follow.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    an insightful statement (“our mindsets need to change more than our infrastructure”)

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Andrea Coutu says:

    I wish the areas around schools had more free short-term parking. The City will allow people to park for 5 minutes in the drop-off zone, but that isn’t enough time to walk your child to their classroom (or before school car) and see them in the door – or to pick them up after school. If you have multiple kids, it’s even worse, from what I’ve seen. And there just isn’t enough metered parking for a couple hundred families. In schools with French Immersion, it’s very common to drive, because it’s hard to get your kids to school and then yourself to work in a timely manner using transit.

    I work flex hours, so I’ve tried taking the bus with my kids. But walking in the rain for a few blocks, only to find that the bus is full and not picking anyone up and that now you’re late is upsetting. And then, if you do get on the bus, there aren’t any seats, so you’re holding two little kids and trying to stand. I hurt my back last time I tried this and it will be some time before I try again. (Seriously, how is it that a bus to downtown at noon is jam-packed?!) So I’m back to driving, which I am loathe to do. It seems to me that the City should work out some sort of improved drop-off provision for school areas. (Or better bus options. Plus, it bothers me that I have to pay so much more to take the bus to the school than I do to drive and pay park…)

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