Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Jurassic Park(ing Policies)

Dear Winnipeg,

This past week, my wife took me to a Parking Conference as a belated birthday gift.

[Note to self: remember to fill out the Are You A Nerd? online quiz…]

And let me tell you, it was A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

[Yes, a keynote presentation followed by breakout sessions, all related to parking, was awesome.]

[And no, I didn’t mean to say parkour.]

[But to be clear, parkour is also awesome.]

We attended Parking and the City, presented by the Green Action Centre and the Downtown BIZ, featuring a keynote presentation by none other than… wait for it… Dr. Donald Shoup!!

That’s right, the author of the High Cost of Free Parking, the Shoup Dogg himself, was here in Winnipeg… and I breathed the same room air as him!

Sorry, I’m gushing like a tweenager at a Taylor Swift concert.

[Is Taylor Swift still a thing? Uh-oh… that I don’t know that is the first sign I’m starting to get old…]

[Well, I guess the second sign. The first sign is probably that I attended a parking conference for fun.]

Anywho, if you’ve never heard of him, Dr. Shoup’s thing is that a couple decades ago, he noticed that all of the studies being done on transportation were about the movements of traffic. It dawned on him that 95% of the time, cars weren’t moving at all (they were parked), and so there might be something interesting to learn there.

And boy, was he right!

Here are the Coles notes, in case you’re not feeling up to reading all 734 pages of his seminal work. [Yes, the root of that word IS what you think.]

First, cities rarely charge for street parking. That means that demand for street parking outstrips supply almost always.

You can compare this to a free pizza offer. If my local pizza joint offered free pizza, I might want a slice or two for lunch. I may even go back for dinner. And I might grab a bunch of extra slices to bring home to the family. And so would all my neighbours. Demand for free pizza would be high.

But let’s say they upped the price to $2 per slice, would I take as much pizza? Probably not. I might still go for lunch, and maybe even dinner, but I would definitely be making my kids eat Kraft Dinner. Demand for $2 pizza would be lower.

So you can control demand by changing the price of a product, that’s just basic economics. I’ve talked about this before regarding Bomber-game parking. A lot of people take the bus rather than pay $30 for parking. Since they have a fixed supply of parking, the Bombers are simply adjusting demand for it by changing the price.

Seems pretty straightforward. Except cities generally never did this.

Instead of charging a price to control the demand for street parking, they made rules for developers to follow so they would include off-street parking in anything they built, quaintly called Parking Minimums.

With my apologies to Ann Taintor.

Parking Minimums are rules included in our Zoning By-law that determine how much parking must be provided for EVERY kind of new building that gets built. On the surface, some of it seems pretty reasonable:

  • Multi-family dwelling: 1.5 parking spaces per housing unit.
  • Community centre: 1 parking space per 100 sq ft of floor area. [Presumably because more people will go to a larger centre?]

But some are just downright weird:

  • Golf course: 3 parking spaces per hole, or 1 per 100 square feet in clubhouse, whichever is greater.
  • Drinking establishment: 1 per 100 sq ft of floor area. [Begging the question: should anyone be driving to/from a drinking establishment?]
  • Surface parking lot: no parking required. [I swear I’m not making this up, these are actually the rules in Winnipeg.]

As it turns out, Dr Shoup found that despite how scientific and mathematical-sounding these are (and I love math), they’re really just made-up, pseudo-scientific, mumbo-jumbo! Or hullaballoo, depending on where you’re from.

And it would be really funny, if it weren’t for the fact that these types of regulations have had very large negative consequences on our cities.

Cue: The Law of Unintended Consequences!

Turns out, even if parking is free to the driver, the cost of providing that parking doesn’t just disappear. Land costs money. Concrete (or asphalt) costs money. If you’re building a parking structure, steel costs money. Engineering designs cost money.

And that business, or that developer, will always seek to recoup (and pass on) their costs. That means the bananas at that grocery store, or the bucket of balls at that driving range, or that condo you want to buy, or that apartment you want to rent, all cost more money because of the parking that must be provided.

That means parking isn’t free. It’s just bundled.

Like when the cable company wouldn’t let you choose just the channels you wanted. [Is cable TV still a thing? Phew, that I don’t know that means I’m still relatively young…]

Or like that new laptop you just bought that comes with a bunch of garbage software you don’t want.

And so eventually we end up with an affordable housing crisis. Places to store people get too expensive, while places to store cars remain free.

But it gets worse! [You knew it would.]

It turns out free parking is like rabbits. They reproduce. A lot. [A parking lot?]

Let’s say you build a 20-unit apartment building beside a pizza restaurant. In pre-parking minimum times, you could just build them one next to the other, and the pizza restaurant would have a nice built-in clientele.

But we don’t live in those times.

That apartment building requires a minimum of 30 parking spaces. And the pizza restaurant requires 1 space per 100 sq ft, so even a small 1,000 sq ft mom-and-pop type of place requires 10 spaces.

Since the average parking space takes up 330 sq ft, you now have an apartment building next to nearly a quarter-acre of parking, and a pizza joint with a parking lot three times the size of the restaurant.

That kind of development tends to push buildings further apart.

Repeat that over an entire neighbourhood, and not only have you made it easier to drive everywhere due to ample free parking, you’ve also made it harder to walk, since everything is further apart.

So more people drive.

So you require more parking.

So stuff ends up even further apart.

So more people drive.

You get the picture.

But it gets even worse. [You’re surprised?]

In the places that were already built up before parking rules incentivized people to drive (think Downtown and pre-WWII neighbourhoods like Elmwood and the North End), adaptive re-use of old buildings was made more difficult, or often, just plain impossible.

That means if an old horse livery in the Exchange became vacant, the owner couldn’t transform it into a trendy restaurant, or a cool bar or a fancy new condo, without meeting the new parking minimums. And since there is no space on the property to add parking, that building would remain vacant.

[Except not in our Downtown… more on that later!]

But, you guessed it, it gets even worse than that! Although, if you’re still interested at this point, you should probably just read the book. Or Google some videos. I suggest you start with this one by Vox. [Also, now’s probably a good time to take that Are You A Nerd? quiz with me…]

Bottom line, these are the main reforms Dr Shoup calls for:

  • Eliminate parking minimums from the zoning by-law. Developers can still supply parking, but they will only supply what the market demands of them. Plus that leaves them free to convert any excess parking in the future into actual housing or stores or anything, should the population’s needs shift in that direction.
  • Charge the right price for street parking in order to manage demand. The “right price” is the lowest price that will always leave you with 15% open spaces on any given block, meaning there’s always a spot available near your destination. There’s tons of technology that make this possible.
  • Spend the parking revenue on public services and upgrades on the street (or in the neighbourhood) that collected it. Don’t put the money into general revenue. That’s the very definition of a cash grab.

Anyways, he shows all this in excruciating mathematical detail in his 2005 book. If that doesn’t convince you, then maybe you’ll want to read his latest 2018 release, Parking and the City, which is 51 chapters by 46 different authors who have done follow-up studies on cities which have implemented the reforms suggested in his first book. [Spoiler alert: they worked!]

So back to the Exchange District. You’ll notice that the example I gave of the conversion of a horse livery being made impossible by parking minimums is readily proven false by what we see in today’s Exchange District. There are obviously loads of examples of old buildings that have been converted into restaurants, condos, and whatever else.

So what gives?

As it turns out, over 15 years ago we removed parking minimums for the Downtown only. And look at that – redevelopment! And some of it (like some of the new condos) still included new parking when deemed necessary.

We still don’t have it completely right, because we’re not yet charging the right price for street parking (if more than 15% of spaces on a block are available, the price is too high, if less, then the price is too low). So we need to adjust there.

Also, parking money is going into general revenue, which is a big no-no. Parking money collected in an area should go back to that area, either for sidewalk upgrades, lighting upgrades, street trees, roller skating bears, or whatever else that area decides it wants for itself.

But it’s not just for Downtown. Charging the right price for parking (and returning the revenue to the neighbourhood) is also a good solution for any area where we find there is a “parking problem”… like say, the streets around hospitals or the stadium? And honestly, that could be a whole other topic for another time.

But if this has worked so well in so many other cities, and your sisters Edmonton, Minneapolis and Portland (which actually has parking MAXimums) are doing it, that leaves me with one question:

Why aren’t you reforming your dinosaur-aged parking policies city-wide, or at the very least, applying it to the Mature Communities in your new infill strategy?

Lots of love,

Elmwood Guy