We need to stop using parking as a major consideration in housing decisions

Chris Campbell

“We are building too much parking along with our housing,” New Westminster Coun. Patrick Johnstone.

Read that quote and let it sink in a moment.

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If you haven’t followed municipal politics for as long as I have – 30 years and counting - then you can be forgiven for not getting just how startling this quote is.

Let me back up a minute.

Before I became a community newspaper editor, I was a reporter covering various councils in such areas as Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows, Abbotsford, Langley Township and Chilliwack.

This was in the 1990s, when most politicians didn’t discuss climate change and urban sprawl was still seen as “smart” planning.

A common theme from city mayors and councillors was expressing deep concern about how a certain project or housing concept would impact parking.

Secondary suites, for example, were too often ruled out because they would have a “negative” impact on a neighbourhood’s parking – as though that was more important than coming up with affordable housing solutions.

I’ve lost count of how many dinosaur politicians clutched their pearls in fear over how adding more people to a neighbourhood would impact people’s street parking.

Oh the humanity!

I would laugh about these terrible policy decisions if they had been left behind, but there are still too many city politicians who obsess over maintaining lots of parking.

And it’s not just politicians. With former Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan ousted from office, some Burnaby Citizens Association councillors have felt like the handcuffs are off. This has led to much debate about allowing bigger basement suites and laneway housing options – something that Corrigan was apparently not in favour of due, in part, to (you guessed it) concerns over parking. Burnaby’s own director of planning and building Lou Pelletier mentioned the strain on parking in his report that recommended against larger basement suites.

The reaction to the NOW’s stories on these ideas resulted in a torrent of letters to the editor from people freaking out over the thought of losing some of their street parking with more people coming to their neighbourhoods.

These letters spread the same kind of fear mongering about parking that scares the courage right out of politicians who don’t want to upset the electorate.

Which is why Johnstone’s quote – included in a recent tweet – was so refreshing.

After decades of listening to politicians putting vehicle parking ahead of housing solutions, it was unusual to hear one come out and say something so completely different.

delta parking

Now, to be clear, Johnstone wasn’t referring to parking in relation to single-family houses. He was referring to Metro Vancouver Regional District’s ongoing research into the use of on-site parking at apartment buildings throughout Metro Vancouver.

The data is remarkable and is part of a long-term study that began way back in 2011. I’m not going to analyze the entire document – my point is to show how wrong many politicians are when it comes to their thinking about parking in relation to housing.

Langley City Coun. Nathan Pachal wrote a blog about Metro Vancouver’s data and listed the following findings:

  • For both rental and strata buildings, apartment parking supply exceeds use across the region. In strata apartment buildings, parking supply exceeds utilization by 42 per cent, while in rental apartment buildings, parking supply exceeds utilization by 35 per cent.
  • Apartment parking supply and use is lower for buildings closer to frequent transit (bus or rail).
  • Transit use is generally higher where apartment parking use is lower, especially for rental buildings.
  • Street parking is complex in mixed-use neighbourhoods. Some of the factors contributing to street parking use include: visitors to non-residential land uses in the evenings; apartment visitors on weekends, holidays, and special occasions; and some apartment residents parking on a nearby street.
  • The design and capacity of bicycle parking facilities in apartment buildings appear to discourage use by many residents.

That last point is just sad. Bike parking is supposed to be designed to make it easier for people to use – not harder. The bike parkade in my building is a prime example. It’s located down on the second underground level and you have to go down these really steep steps just to get into it. Then, once you finally get your bike out of the locked pen and drag it up the steep, narrow stairs, you have to walk quite a distance just to get outside.

It is decidedly not user-friendly.

I asked Johnstone what he thought of the data and he said it seems to support two long-held beliefs – “we are building too much parking and the parking we have is poorly allocated.”

bike storage
New buildings need better bike storage options. FILE PHOTO

Underutilization of a building’s parking is a big problem because it’s so expensive to build parking spots. I’ve seen estimates for underground parking at a whopping $55,000 per stall. If some of those stalls don’t get used – and in my Burnaby building, I’d say only about 60 per cent of the spots get used – then that’s money wasted.

“This adds to housing costs,” Johnstone said, “but it also takes away from other value items we can add to our housing, like that third bedroom, or even money developers can offer for community amenities.”

The problem, according to Johnstone, is that some communities have parking minimums that developers have to follow.

“Many cities concentrating on transit-oriented urban development are moving away from so-called parking minimums and are instead asking developers to invest in things like car-share facilities or enhanced cycling storage for their residents,” Johnstone said. “We already provide some relaxations in New West for development adjacent to frequent transit, but I wonder if we go far enough.”

It makes sense that people who live near a SkyTrain station are less likely to own a vehicle.

Joel Gibbs, a Burnaby Green Party candidate for council who Mayor Mike Hurley named to the city’s environment and social planning committee, tweeted out his disdain for such parking rules for housing developments: “Minimum parking requirements are terrible policy and encourage many behaviours and outcomes that are harmful to society. This hasn’t been proactively addressed by any city in our region, but it needs to be.”

Gibbs is in his early 20s and was unsuccessful in getting elected to Burnaby council. Meanwhile, council is made up of people who are all at least 50 years old.

This is the problem with city politics.

We have too many dinosaurs that have no clue about using transit or cycling infrastructure. They cling to the ideas of the past and what they know – which is driving their car everywhere.

That has to change. Hopefully having such solid data from the regional government will push more civic politicians to be smarter about their housing decisions.

Follow Chris Campbell on Twitter @shinebox44

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