Vancouver’s Parking Wars Heat Up
May 1, 2014
When Marial Shea decided to give up her house and move to a condo, she knew she wanted to stay near Commercial Drive. The new complex at Venables and Salsbury was just right, a modern four-storey on an attractive street of well-treated historic houses. A half-block from the strip, it was marketed as part of Vancouver’s “definitive walkable community.” And Shea could save as much as $15,000 on one of its 18 units if she opted to go without a parking stall. She and several others took advantage of that option — she hadn’t had a car for a decade, even through the years of bringing up two boys — which worked out well for the development company. Redekop had provided only 12 spots, per a city policy that lowers the usual one-per-unit requirement if the units are smaller than 540 square feet — on the assumption that people in smaller apartments are less likely to own cars.
Little did Shea realize that she was moving into a small but fierce war. In the two years since, a couple of people in the complex have seen their cars ticketed and then towed after complaints by Ward Bowman, the owner of one of the houses across the street. In turn, Bowman has had to move the camper he had parked on the street for years after someone (neighbourhood gossip says a condo resident) phoned in a retaliatory complaint. Bowman’s next-door neighbour, Tak Uyede, has also had his car towed and is dedicating part of his retirement to chronicling the area’s parking woes.
Those skirmishes capped several years of increasing squeeze. A nearby parking lot had been removed. Basement suites and new townhouses, and their car-owning tenants, continued to flourish. (The only known addition of parking was provided by a woman in a converted triplex near Uyede who, to her dismay, was required by the city to pave part of her yard to provide an extra parking spot for that triplex.) The Cultch, at the end of the block, seemed to be drawing more people to more theatre productions following its dramatic renovation. And then the new condo building came in. Its owners petitioned to have the street turned into a residents-only parking area. No way, the homeowners countered: their visitors would have to park blocks away. It was hard to imagine a happy resolution.
Shea and her neighbours are far from unusual in their tensions over parking. As Vancouver attempts to create a European-style metropolis in the North American West — a region with a long tradition of designing cities that provide a concierge service to the motorized vehicle — the friction over how much space to give our cars is erupting in transition zones like this one. An analysis of all the calls about parking made to the City over the last two years shows that the hottest zones are not the West End or downtown — places where parking is unequivocally tight. Nor are they the city’s suburban-style neighbourhoods, where basement suites, laneway houses, apartment buildings, and towers have generated regular fear about impending parking shortages. Instead, conflict centres on places like Commercial Drive and Mount Pleasant — relatively high-density places that continue to absorb ever more residents, but where (unlike downtown) people still expect to walk from their car to their front door in under a minute. “It’s a hot issue,” Shea says, looking out her window to note that Uyede, who moved into the area three decades ago, is once again parked illegally — his solution to the local squeeze has been, when all else fails, to block his own driveway. She understands the frustration. “It must be difficult for people who have been here for a generation. Now they can’t park in front of their own house because of all the new people.”
Cities provide enormous tracts of land to ensure that every car has multiple homes available to it — between four and six spots for every local vehicle. Even in land-strapped Vancouver, where the idea of paving a bit of park for a bike path is enough to ignite a revolt, city engineers estimate that there’s room for 300,000 cars on the streets of the city’s 44 square miles. That doesn’t take into account the tens of thousands of spots available in garages, commercial lots and parkades, alleys, community centres, and paved yards.
It turns out we’re not as willing to cut the cord as media reports suggest. Vancouver does lead the way in North America as a city that has seen its downtown population and jobs grow while car trips have gone down. Car sharing is booming, as are walking and cycling. But we’re not giving up our cars, according to the preliminary results of a study the city’s engineering department is doing on downtown condos. We may not use those cars much, but we hang on to them, storing them in underground parkades or on the street for those just-in-case moments. “Trips are down, but the physical number of cars that sit in the downtown has not decreased,” says Jerry Dobrovolny, the city’s chief transportation planner. He has many unlovely tasks in this city (trying to convince people that a bike lane isn’t the end of the world, explaining why a rail line down Broadway isn’t a transit solution, planning the eventual removal of the viaducts), including this: figuring out the perfect amount of parking. What is perfect? Not so much that people think it’s unlimited and free, but enough to de-escalate all-out war.
Dobrovolny’s department hasn’t yet studied the inner ring of city neighbourhoods, like Commercial Drive. But all indications are that, as downtown, people there love the walkability and love their cars. Maybe even more. Uyede has two vehicles. Shea ended up buying a secondhand car last year, with the idea that she and her sons would share it. And Bowman, a civil engineer who works all over the region, has three: a truck, a minivan, and a Land Rover. What city planners don’t seem to take into account, he says, is that the city is only a walking/cycling/transit paradise in the core. “As soon as you go east of Victoria Drive for anything, you need a vehicle.” For a five-person family like his, which needs to make trips to the big-box stores in the suburbs, transit is hopeless. He believes that once there are more electric vehicles available, which will relieve many people of fossil-fuel guilt, ownership will start to climb again. “This anti-car culture will turn around.”
Debate about growth in the city inevitably becomes debate about parking and its cousin, traffic. “Whenever we have a new development, the two comments we can always rely on are that parking and traffic are already bad and this will make it worse,” says Dobrovolny. Resistance to new kinds of housing is often not about the people moving in, but their cars. But it costs big bucks to provide parking for all those new cars. A stall — equivalent in space to two large living-room rugs — can cost $10,000 to $50,000 to provide, depending on the price of the land and how far down a developer has to dig. That traps city planners and engineers between builders and NIMBY neighbours. Parking disputes pour into city hall in a steady stream, as do outlandish requests and reports of creative law-breaking. Engineering staff have seen it all. The guy who phoned 135 times in a single year to complain about people parking on his block. The people who make fake Resident Parking Only signs. The territorial ones with the cones and the chairs and the buckets (which city staff routinely confiscate). The homeowners who call demanding a guaranteed street spot because they’ve already filled their garage with stored furniture. The bylaw savants hip to a little-known provision: anyone who parks on a residential street that isn’t their own — even if it has no resident-only parking signs or other warnings — can get ticketed if they stay more than three hours. Police get called out routinely to deal with people who know that one (they hope that no one else discovers it), who’ve been blocked in, who are fighting over whether a neighbour can reserve a spot in front of their house. “We get the fights,” says Vancouver police spokesman Sgt. Randy Fincham. “The road rage.”
Yet Vancouver is relatively sophisticated in how it manages parking. It sets the price of downtown meters high enough to act as a kind of congestion charge. The ideal state is to have 15 percent of spots available at all times. We’re close. In the neighbourhoods the world likes to descend on (the West End, the roads within striking distance of Canada Line stations, the streets near the Drive’s more popular drinking establishments), Dobrovolny’s department is issuing an increasing number of resident-only permits — 25,000 at last count — along with higher fees in some areas to force residents to use the spaces they already have. (Those permit numbers are likely to keep climbing. The City has introduced an online system for residents petitioning to have parking on their street restricted to themselves.)
Figuring out how to handle all this is still an emerging science. The residents around Salsbury and Venables solved things their own way. The towing is down to a moderate level. Uyede helped Shea buy her car, and he frets, on her behalf, that it’s already been dinged three times. The condo owners in her building changed their minds about resident-only parking on the street. “We understood that Tak and Ward didn’t want that, so we voted it down,” says Shea, who has tried to deal with the whole mess by connecting with her neighbours. She’s inclined to agree with her son’s point of view: “We have to realize the city is growing and we can’t go back.”
But ad hoc solutions won’t always be enough. Donald Shoup is a UCLA professor whose book The High Cost of Parking is considered the bible of the field. “Planning for parking is at a primitive stage,” he says, “maybe where medicine was a hundred years ago, when doctors prescribed lead and mercury as medicines, and bloodletting as a therapy. Looking back a hundred years from now, I think everyone will understand that mispriced on-street parking and misguided off-street parking requirements did immense damage to cities, the economy, and the environment.” Shoup says cities — especially West Coast cities — are getting more experimental and creative. San Francisco charges variable rates at meters in order to reduce cruising for spots during peak hours but encourage customers to patronize local businesses off-peak. Berkeley is looking at creating residential-parking districts where owners are offered a transit pass if they’ll give up one of their two parking permits. In Portland, the city has eliminated minimum parking requirements for new buildings near transit, on the premise that developers will put in the amount of parking they need in order to sell offices or units. To make sure they don’t just eliminate parking altogether and let everyone fight it out on the street, cities can force or encourage developers to pay for the cost of creating resident-only zones around their projects where new condo dwellers would not be allowed any of the resident-parking spaces, something that would have worked for the Venables complex.
The goal, says Shoup, is to create a Goldilocks city where the amount and price of the available parking is not too much, not too little, not too expensive, not too cheap. Especially not too cheap. “Land is so valuable in Vancouver, the idea that it should be free for cars is ridiculous.”