We're in the midst of a self-imposed hiatus from writing new blog material, as we're busy hustling behind-the-scenes on our first full-length book. But rather than suffer through total radio silence, we thought it would be fun to periodically revisit old articles we've published over the years, many of which are no longer available online. The following, written by Chris, originally appeared in Hush Magazine on January 29th, 2013.
With 99 out of 100 North American car trips terminating in a free parking space, the notion of cheap, convenient parking has become sacrosanct in our society. This does, however, present one significant problem; namely the vast amount of space these (often single-occupant) vehicles occupy for the 22 hours a day they are not being driven. We now find ourselves in the absurd scenario where a parked car is entitled to more space (180 sq. ft.) than a typical office worker (160 sq. ft.). With antiquated governmental policies requiring three parking spaces for every car, the result on our built environment is devastating. Our obsession with abundant, accessible on-street parking continues to severely limit our pursuit of walkable, bikeable and livable neighbourhood streets.
If your street is anything like mine, it is continually lined with minivans, trucks and SUVs, whose owners encounter few restrictions and a cost of pennies a day (if any). Why do we choose to pave and maintain such an expensive and expansive network of roadways, when almost half is used for handy, low-cost automobile storage? Especially when you consider the vast majority (over 70%) of residential garages aren’t even occupied by cars, but rather used for the accumulation of “stuff”. How many of these cars on the street would be moved inside if parking were made difficult or expensive enough? In doing so, what kind of possibilities could we open up with all of that road space? Imagine the play areas we could create for our children, the commons where neighbours could gather, the green space we could use to grow fruits, vegetable and grains; and the additional room we could dedicate to the safe and social acts of walking or cycling.
In spite of these clear shortcomings and limitless opportunities, our public and private entities appear resolute in reinforcing our reliance on inexpensive and easy-to-find parking. This status quo also persists in the face of an irrefutable shift in attitudes and trends: the number of car trips, miles driven, and automobile owners are steadily decreasing in the western world. Millennials in particular are flocking to other modes of transportation, and those that do choose to drive, do so through car sharing. It’s no wonder: a recent study found the average annual cost to own and operate a car in Canada is now $10,452. Access to a single shared car (from Modo, ZipCar, Car2Go, etc.) has been shown to replace 20 privately owned automobiles. Yet for some reason, we continue to require developers, homeowners and businesses to maintain the same number of parking spots across the city, while the number of cars to fill them drops.
My biggest issue with on-street parking is how it is used by business and neighbourhood associations to refute any attempts to provide safe and reliable bicycle infrastructure. When a proposal for a new bike lane is floated to the public, without fail, the biggest cause for opposition is the potential loss of on-street parking. It is however, an emotional and irrational response, and one that disregards the prevailing trends cited above. In short, these groups are saying that having parking available on both sides of the street trumps the safety of the increasing number of cyclists willing to negotiate traffic. They only appear willing to sacrifice parking for their cars when it is deemed to interfere with moving ones. How long will we let this sense of entitlement prevent drivers from having to walk more than a block or two to their destination, while continuing to ignore the security and comfort of those who chose to walk or cycle?
Perhaps the most striking visual example of this gratuitous allocation of space is the bicycle corral. In its simplest form, two adjacent parallel parking spots along a street are reclaimed for bike parking. The area required for two vehicles is then multiplied with enough room for 20 bicycles, typically followed by a significant increase in visitors. While Vancouver currently has a pilot program in place, it has only installed a handful of corrals, the most prominent being the frequently used racks outside the J.J. Bean on Commercial Drive. Many businesses (even along designated bikeways) still suffer from a frustrating lack of bike parking, despite having dozens of on-street and off-street spots allotted for cars. In the meantime, Portland has installed 100 corrals over the past six years, with 50 more on a lengthy waiting list. Local businesses have reaped the rewards, trading just 150 car parking spaces for 1,500 potential customers on their bicycles.
The parklet is another way in which the City of Vancouver has been experimenting with adapting parking spaces for public use. Widely found in San Francisco and New York, these patios (complete with chairs, tables, and green space) remain hugely popular with both private enterprise and the general public, They are, however, still treated as a temporary fixture, often returned to their former use at the end of the Summer, reinforcing the idea that on-street parking is untouchable. Much like the corrals, Vancouver’s parklet program remains in the pilot stage, and any outside initiative is met with an enormous amount of red tape. Instead, they are used as a marketing gimmick, rather than a long-term, permanent solution to building more social and livable streets.
In the end, the true cost of cheap parking is reflected in the abject quality of our shared public spaces. In the face of gradually declining car use, we continue to hand over sizeable chunks of our civic realm to the storage of inefficient and cumbersome vehicles. This denial of “peak car” has become the most significant barrier to creating vibrant, community-minded streets. It’s time we accept this new post-motordom era, and start reflecting it in our policies, attitudes, and priorities. We have to stop planning our cities around machines, and start designing them for people. Then, and only then, will we reap the rewards in our collective health, happiness, well-being, and wealth. We must dare to dream; and ask ourselves whether we truly want to live, work and play in a parking lot?