Your meter is up

For many, a car can represent a certain degree of freedom — a license to go where you want, when you want, without having to worry about bus schedules, safe bike routes, or well-lit walkways. But for all the value a car provides in mobility, it's still a pretty hefty piece of metal, and you have to find somewhere to store it after it's delivered you to your destination. If you've managed to avoid a traffic-snarled commute, there's one last potentially aggravating, costly, and inconvenient thing to deal with: parking.

While parking might not be much of an issue in rural areas, for anyone who drives in a remotely urban setting, parking is a pain. It can be hard to find, and expensive. The only free space might be far from your final destination, and there's often the risk of getting a parking ticket. As my roommate recently discovered after borrowing a car for an afternoon, it doesn't take much to rack up $90 in fines by misinterpreting parking signs.

Most people are car owners — 75% of households in Toronto own at least one — and they all need a place, or, more accurately, many places, to park their cars. According to the United States Bureau of Transportation Statistics, it's estimated that for every vehicle on the road there are five parking spaces. The more cars we own, the more space and resources we're devoting to parking instead of other uses.

Consider that parking facilities — both on- and off-street — constitute a significant chunk of our urban puzzle; the Toronto Parking Authority (TPA) has 17,500 on-street parking spaces, equivalent to 117 kilometres of traffic lanes. Consider also that the City is looking for ways to reduce car dependency to improve both the environment and people's health, and you start to wonder why parking isn't talked about that much when undergoing any review or analysis of sustainable city-building. But what can cities do when it comes to parking? Should they be doing anything at all? A growing body of work among planners, developers, and transportation specialists, a discipline sometimes known as "parking management," says yes.

Parking breaks down into two different types: off-street parking — public and private, aboveground and underground — and on-street parking, which is often metered. While off-street parking may be less visible, it still has a considerable impact on what our city looks like and how easy it is to drive. An office building may have a private underground garage that's only available to its tenants. But the fact that those tenants are offered parking means it's that much easier to drive, which translates into more cars using our streets.

Public and private parking lots also have an effect on our urban fabric. Surface lots can break up continuous streetscapes and create impermeable surfaces that disrupt stormwater flow. Above-ground, multi-level garages may take up less space on the ground, but they're usually unattractive, simply designed concrete blocks that detract from a street's aesthetic.

The City of Toronto recently conducted an extensive review of the parking standards it imposes for new buildings, resulting in a massive, 300 page report. For years, developers have been required to build a certain number of parking spaces in new projects even if they didn't think they were necessary. The study found that the City, especially in high-density areas and those well-served by transit, should reduce the number of parking spaces required per unit or floor space of new construction, and also institute maximum standards. It also revealed that, outside the downtown core, as many as 35% of parking spaces at retail and office locations are not used even during the peak period of demand. Essentially, city standards are forcing developers to oversupply parking at these types of locations by about 50% — a needless waste of space and money.

The report also recommends that Toronto put greater emphasis on three underused strategies for reducing parking in order to make more efficient use of the city's limited space. Instead of requiring each builder to provide enough parking to meet City standards, "shared parking" allows multiple developments with different uses and different peak periods of demand (such as office and retail) to combine their parking facilities. This strategy can reduce the overall amount of parking required by up to 30%. "Off-site parking" allows a developer to take advantage of an existing or proposed parking facility near their building in order to meet the minimum parking requirement. Finally, "payment in-lieu of parking" allows developer to pay the City for any shortfall in its provision of parking. Those funds go into a pool that can be used — usually by the TPA — to build future public parking facilities.

Furthermore, automatically supplying parking in all types of buildings — commercial, residential, or institutional — without a proven demand encourages car ownership. The more parking is available, the cheaper and more convenient it becomes, making driving a more attractive option. Without cheap parking, residents might consider getting rid of an extra unnecessary car, eliminating driving altogether, or opting for a car-sharing service instead.

In addition to private off-street parking, Toronto also has a considerable amount of public parking, both off-street and on-street. The TPA was established in 1952, and claims to be the largest municipal parking operator in North America. Currently, the authority manages 32,500 off-street spaces, including those at TTC commuter lots, and all of the 17,500 on-street spaces, netting over $35 million in profits last year — 75% of which is handed over to the City, the rest of which is used for TPA capital investments.

The TPA holds a monopoly over on-street parking, the most visible and competitive places to put a car. In 1987, the most you'd pay for on-street parking in Toronto was $1.00 per hour. Today, that number is up to $3.00 — an increase more than double the rate of inflation. Providing on-street parking often means narrower sidewalks, fewer lanes (and greater risk of car-door collisions) for bikes, or slow transit service because there are fewer traffic lanes to move vehicles. On the other hand, on-street parking can provide a safety buffer between pedestrians and moving traffic, and it also provides some level of street life, which is important for making streets safe and comfortable places.

With increased attention being paid and investment being made to re-orient streets towards sustainable transportation — such as dedicated lanes for transit, wider sidewalks for pedestrians, and bike lanes — the competition for limited road space is heating up. Planners, engineers, and citizens are beginning to wonder if we really need all this space for parking on our streets.

According to Vice President of Strategic Planning and Information Ian Maher, the TPA will be building four new off-street parking facilities in order to accommodate the on-street parking spaces that will have to be removed to make way for the new streetcar right-of-way on St. Clair Avenue. Maher says the TPA knows the need to accommodate the parking off-street exists because they do annual reviews based on current and emerging commercial activity and simple observation as to whether current supply meets demand. While it's progressive for the City to consider relocating on-street parking, it's still an old way of looking at things to insist that the market for parking must balance out. The TPA's website includes this quote from Mayor Nathan Phillips, made almost 50 years ago during the opening of the City Hall Garage: "…business goes today where there is convenient, thrifty parking and stays clear of locations that can't or won't provide it."

There are other ways to look at the problem, however. Looking at the existing demand and then building parking space to accommodate it, as the TPA does, is a somewhat backwards way of proceeding if the city's goal is to reduce overall car use. Rather than build more parking, the city should continue looking at ways to reduce how often cars are used for trips.

Transportation demand management strategies are designed to work towards this goal. They include improving public transit service, cycling facilities, and the pedestrian environment so that commuters don't see the car as their only choice.

Many of our daily trips are short distances which could easily be made by foot, bike, or transit. Thirty-eight percent of Canadians live within five kilometres of their workplace — an easy bike ride, or quick transit trip. Making driving more expensive — through road tolls, parking taxes, or vehicle registration fees — can persuade some drivers to consider these other transportation options, while providing needed revenue to improve alternative, more sustainable travel modes. This cycle of disincentive and investment continues until you reach an urban transportation system where a car is virtually unnecessary, such as in Berlin or Amsterdam.

Those parking facilities that do exist, meanwhile, can be integrated much better into the urban environment. Builders can design parking garages that have a mix of uses or that incorporate green building standards, such as green roofs. At York University, two of its newest parking garages are wrapped in offices and classrooms, so the majority of the building's fa