Canada has way more parking than cars. Is it time for that to change? | CBC Radio

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The Sunday Magazine21:55How parking explains the world

Even if plain, boring parking lots seem to dominate city landscapes, author Henry Grabar says it’s not too late to shift gears towards a less car-centric society, which could open up parking spaces to be used for other needs such as affordable housing. 

“We have spent a long time thinking about how automobiles and roads have transformed our landscape, but paid very little attention to parking. And I think that’s a mistake,” Grabar told The Sunday Magazine guest host Robyn Bresnahan.


“A car spends 95 per cent of its lifespan parked. So when you think about the car’s actual spatial impact on the places we live, you’re mostly talking about parking.”

Grabar is a journalist for Slate and the author of a new book called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World.

He says a move away from the need for parking spaces could open up more options for affordable housing, and make cities more walkable. 

But according to Grabar there is too much parking, and the planning around it hasn’t been getting the attention it needs. 

Grabar says that’s because parking sits at the intersection of land use and transportation. He says that often the people in charge of transportation don’t think about parking and, with the exception of residential developments, architects often don’t consider where to put cars until after a building is designed. 

A headshot of a man posing for a picture.
Henry Grabar is a writer for Slate and the author of a new book Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World. (Submitted by Henry Grabar)

The other reason Grabar says parking doesn’t get the thought that it should:

“Parking just strikes people as sort of boring and dull. I mean, parking lots are ugly, parking garages are unloved. It’s nobody’s favourite thing to do and no one’s favourite thing to talk about,” said Grabar. 

“I’ve written stories about affordable housing and transportation and storm-water flooding and architecture and under [everything], it seemed that there was this big issue that hadn’t been discussed, and that issue was parking. It seemed whatever the question, the answer was parking.”

Parking, parking everywhere, but not a space for me

It may seem shocking, as you struggle to find an open space at Costco or spot outside your favourite restaurant, but Grabar says there is actually an overabundance of parking in Canada. 

According to research done by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research initiative at the University of Calgary in 2021, there are 3.2 to 4.4 parking spots for every vehicle in Canada. 

The study found about 40 per cent of those spaces were for residential use, 26 per cent was connected to the commercial and institutional sectors, and the rest were on-road spaces.

Grabar says this is because we’ve formed our society around the need for cars. 

“It’s absolutely essential to hold down a job, get to school, to go shopping, to see your friends, and unless you have a place to park, you can’t get out of the car,” said Grabar.

And that’s what Grabar says is wrong with the parking situation. 

A man walks by an empty space in a parking lot.
Some cities, such as Edmonton and Toronto, have updated their bylaws and removed the need for new developments to have a minimum amount of parking. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

“One of the reasons for that is that, of course, everybody wants to go to the same places at the same time, and parking takes up a lot of space and it costs a lot of money,” said Grabar.

“The second one is that some neighbourhoods where people think there’s a parking shortage actually do have enough parking. The problem is that it’s just mismanaged.”

He says if there aren’t parking metres, the good spots are taken by either locals or people who are going to work and park there the entire day. 

The other challenge is that some parking spots are dedicated to specific businesses, but people still can’t park there on a day or hour when the business isn’t open.

Grabar uses the example of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The parking lot there is nearly 11 times bigger than the baseball stadium. It means everyone can park on game day, but when the Dodgers aren’t playing, it’s just wasted space. 

Parking minimums

Grabar says creating more parking is not the answer, and Dodger Stadium is a great example of that. 

“If I ran the Dodgers, I would take that parking lot and I would build like 45,000 units of housing on it, because Los Angeles has a very severe housing crisis,” said Grabar. 

“It seems like a shame to be reserving so much land in the heart of the city for simply storing people’s private automobiles for a few hours at a time during the game.”

To do this, Grabar said there would need to be a public transit link, but that would be easily afforadable if the land was turned into housing.

There have already been changes across Canada. Edmonton became the first major Canadian city to remove minimum parking requirements in 2020. While accessible spots for people with disabilities were still required, the change meant developers and businesses could decide how much other parking to offer, instead of needing to build a minimum amount.

The city of Toronto did the same in 2021. It found the construction cost for an underground parking space ranged from $48,000 to $160,000, and that cost was being put on residents, making units less affordable. 

A parking lot with Dodger Stadium in the background.
Grabar says the parking lot at Dodger Stadium takes up nearly 11 times more space than the ballpark itself. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/File)

“By not requiring parking minimums it encourages people to seek out other ways, such as walking, cycling and transit,” Michael Hain, a transportation planner with the city, told the CBC in November of that year. 

“What we’re trying to avoid is telling developers to build more parking than people are willing to pay for.”

The research from the University of Calgary found that the cost for parking spaces ended up being factored into what Canadians have to pay for their residences, and that the cost of using free parking from businesses often factored into the goods they were paying for at that business. 

The study also found parking took up 25 per cent of what people spend on their vehicles. 

Solving parking problems

Ryan Lo says decisions like those made by Toronto and Edmonton are great steps forward. Lo is the co-executive director of Urban Minds, a non-profit organization based in Toronto that aims to create ways for young people to shape equitable and sustainable cities. 

The past two years, Lo and his organization worked with students at Toronto Metropolitan University to take a couple parking spots and transform them into mini parks as part of Park(ing) Day in September, a global effort to temporarily make parking spots into social spaces to advocate for change.

“In a city like Toronto, property prices, land value is at a premium. And so every inch of space, we need to be very intentional about how we maximize the use out of what we can build,” said Lo. 

Traffic on a multi-lane divided highway with dirty snow piles off to the side.
Henry Grabar says people need to shift away from being so dependent on cars in order to create a more walkable society. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

And while Lo says cities are starting to make smarter parking choices, more needs to be done. He says municipalities need to put more money toward public transit systems and bike-share programs, so people don’t need to rely on vehicles so much. 

Lo says young people are already thinking more about these things. 

“This generation of urban planners recognize the detrimental impact of overreliance on the automobile and the impact on land use, such as the abundance of parking spaces in our cities,” said Lo. 

But the biggest push back, he says, comes from residents. 

“It’s really about people changing their mindsets about how people can move and how our land uses should also change accordingly,” said Lo. 

But Grabar says that if those mindsets start to change, it can make a big difference in changing what Canadian cities look like.

“As these neighbourhoods densify, they will gain enough population to support walkable amenities that they didn’t support beforehand, beginning with things like cafes and groceries. But then finally, also civic institutions like schools and libraries,” said Grabar. 

“Most trips are made in neighbourhoods. And if we provide ways for people to make those trips safely without an automobile, then they’ll do that.”

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