Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Dumb news story of the day

with 6 comments

It is on and it is headed “Vancouver parking rates not so bad: survey“. It is in the same league as those surveys that compare cities around the world and then say Vancouver is the most livable. It may or may not be true – I am not at all sure it matters – but the effect it has is to create a sense of complacency and a ready excuse to not do anything.

Once upon a time I was required by my then employer to get my head around the notion of a market for parking. The political dogma of my masters at that time was that the market was the key to everything. All policy was to deregulate and decontrol so that market forces would create the best of all possible worlds. That process was already under way with public transport and would now be applied to parking too. I was held to be argumentative – if not uncooperative – if I pointed out that many of the regulations we had were created by earlier generations to deal with obvious market failures, such as operating buses in an unsafe manner. In the case of parking, if not for regulation, there would be no market at all, as people would then just leave their cars where they damn well pleased (i.e. on the street) and the result would be chaos.

The City of Vancouver has recently decided there is probably too much parking provision, and new construction will in future be required to provide less of it. And of course, the gear heads promptly got all bent out of shape saying how hard that would make things for everybody: no one it seems wondered if maybe the market would step in and start providing more parking – for a price.

The market for parking in Vancouver is not like that of Central London or Hong Kong – so the fact that it is priced differently should come as no surprise. But what really irritated me was that the rates they looked at meant they completely missed the point. They compared monthly parking rates. In other words, what commuters pay – or more often what the commuters’ employers or companies pay. Because that is the first lesson I had to get across to the politicians. The people who drive into Central London and park do not pay for the space out of their own pockets. Somebody else does – and often its the taxpayer. Senior civil servants, in those days, parked for free on Horse Guards’ Parade. Indeed that privilege marked them out from the ordinary hoi-polloi.  The office parking space is a status symbol. Except for some Japanese companies who say the best spaces should go to those who arrive first in the morning: its a sort of self determined employee of the month thing. Companies of all sizes simply offset the cost of providing parking as a cost of doing business: in other words, it is tax deductible. I even had the temerity to suggest that perhaps we should recover the imputed benefit of the parking privilege as a personal taxable benefit. My boss (who drove his VW camper to work every day) was not at all impressed.

The low cost of commuter parking is not a good news story at all.  It demonstrates that we have not used one of the most powerful levers in the traffic engineer’s toolbox to deal with traffic congestion. Moreover, the market in Vancouver is back asswards. The lots get filled with commuters – who get cheap rates – and then there is not enough space for the hourly parkers, who get dinged. If people like the DVBIA had their heads on straight, they would have realised that it is the hourly parkers that businesses need. These are the people who are not going to get the “early bird specials” or the monthly discounts – because they come into town to do business – attend a meeting, do some shopping, go to a concert or whatever. In other words we are currently deterring the very people the DVBIA says it wants to encourage. The best spots in any Vancouver garage are marked “reserved 24 hours”and are often empty during the evenings and weekends. Goodness only knows which business school the creator of this system went to. Parking inventory is time sensitive – just like aeroplane seats and sushi. Keeping your inventory off the market at the times of highest demand (the words “event parking” should strike terror in anyone’s heart) is economic suicide.  Possibly the worst offender would be the Government of Canada – but they are not alone – who permanently barricade off swathes of parking spaces for their employees in public lots like the Vancouver public library. They say, I am sure, that this is necessary in the name of security.   Well that was the same as the Horse Guards Parade argument and it did not hold true there either (though now no-one is allowed to park there at any time).

But the real kicker in this story is at the end

“By the 2010 Games, public transit will have improved tremendously in order to accommodate this increased ridership that they’re going to be seeing,” Rogowski said.

“Once the Olympics are done and people see how easy it is to take these new transportation initiatives that are being introduced, I think more people will be using public transportation as opposed to paying these expensive parking costs.”

Huh? Did I miss something? As far as  know the only change we can expect to see by 2010 is that the Canada Line will have opened and some buses will therefore have been freed up for service elsewhere. Translink is still cash strapped and will be cutting service if it cannot get the provincial government to change its current policies, which prevent the regional agency from raising enough revenue to keep operating and also expand service. That is what the current “be part of the plan” process is all about. This is not a region that is going to see “tremendous improvement” in transit service if the Kevin Falcon legacy holds – and could well see quite the opposite.

The reason that the survey says there is “less demand” for commuter parking in downtown Vancouver than other major Canadian cities is that they have done better at holding on to major office employment. Most of the those shiny towers in our downtown are residential  – something which is less pronounced in other cities. Indeed it is one of the reasons we think we have cracked the livability problem because some people can live and work within walking distance. We tend to ignore the rather larger number who drive out of downtown to suburban office parks (where the parking is “free”). And Translink does not try to run buses for such people – although that was the first thing Microsoft did when it moved into Richmond.



In this piece I mentioned “my boss” but did not name him. But it occurred to me that I had not heard much about him lately so i looked him upon Google and found this

“Neville Rees was also a mould-breaker; in his case changing the way in which Government analysed and then addressed problems of traffic management, traveller information, dynamic navigation and the links between traffic and spatial planning.”

(source : ITS UK)

That’s a reference to Traffic Master “Neville Rees, a senior civil servant, who eased the way for a pilot scheme to cover the M25 and other motorways within 100 miles of London.”

Neville (no relation) was the Under Secretary for Traffic Policy during my time with the UK Department of Transport. I was saddened to learn of his death but since an award is now named after him, I am glad he is remembered. He was one of the better bosses I have had to work for.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 29, 2009 at 3:49 pm

Posted in parking

6 Responses

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  1. probably not a coincidence that the city with the highest parking rates in Canada (Calgary) also has a greater ridership on their LRT than Vancouver does for SkyTrain.


    June 29, 2009 at 9:51 pm

  2. G’day Stephen,

    FYI – the transit improvements in place by the Games will include 48 more SkyTrain cars, the Canada Line, the 3rd SeaBus and a hundred or so additional buses — all of which will stay in service after the Games if the additional funding is there for them. It will take at least $150 million per year. More, and we can have some expansion, less, then things get parked.

    In addition, TransLink will have 180 ‘flex’ buses that will be available strictly for Olympic transport. Many will be retired after the games, but some will be re-allocated to regular service, again if the funding is there.

    On top of that, VANOC will bring in over 1,000 more buses to provide service to the mountain venues and to move athletes, officals and media around.


    Ken Hardie

    June 30, 2009 at 6:20 am

  3. In reply to S

    It may also have something do with the comparative coverage of rapid transit – SkyTrain serves only a very limited area of the region. More significant though is the distribution of employment. Calgary’s downtown towers are mostly offices. There are more head offices in Calgary than there are in Vancouver.

    Stephen Rees

    June 30, 2009 at 9:12 am

  4. So for two weeks we’ll have a transit system with the kind of capacity we need every day of the year and then, because we know the funding model is broken, things will rapidly deteriorate to the point where 10 lanes on the Port Mann will be needed.

    Until governments all over the world stop treating transit as a business and start thinking of it as a service with wide ranging benefits the future is bleak. The success or failure of a transit system doesn’t show up on the statement of profit and loss. Our mostly neo-conservative governments simply don’t understand anything that doesn’t show up on the financial statements.

    Transit has never been and will never be a profitable venture. Early “profitable” systems accomplished that feat through development of land along the lines. In other words they used non-renewable resources, a short term strategy at best. People are advocating a return to that model today and some transit systems have large real estate arms to help them cope, but that’s the wrong approach. What is needed is for someone to put dollar figures next to all the things that currently aren’t being counted.

    If every organization were forced to do honest accounting of all their negative side effects, account for every ton of pollutant and every non-renewable resource they used, a lot of supposedly profitable corporations would suddenly find themselves in the red and transit would “miraculously” become a very worthwhile investment.


    June 30, 2009 at 9:18 am

  5. In reply to Ken

    The VANOC addition is not relevant. It will make no difference at all to regular transit service during the games or after them.

    And as I said the increment in equipment will only make a difference after the Olympics if Translink has the funding to operate it. The “flex” buses are a neat spin on keeping old buses in service long past their economic life. Buses in North America used to be built for an 18 year life – and Canadian properties would keep them for up to 25 years. A change in US funding rules means that buses now have a 12 year life there before they qualify for federal funds for their replacement. I have not seen a full life cycle cost analysis of the Translink fleet but I hope someone has done one if this “flex bus” idea is implemented for longer term retention of vehicles. And, of course, there are always exceptions. London Transport kept its Routemasters in service for over 40 years – indeed a few are running still – through substantial rebuild programmes.

    Stephen Rees

    June 30, 2009 at 9:21 am

  6. Eh you guys!we were supposed to talk about PARKING! don’t pay attention to Ken Hardie. He is a very nice fellow but he has got to toot the horn of TransLink. I wonder if he ever rides buses, both the bendy ones and those appallingly designed new ones. Last week I saw the first monthly parking over $200.00! One blocks west of Thurlow, just North of Georgia. I wonder if the survey cited Portland. I find their rates quite good for tourists and shoppers. We would have less commuters cluttering downtown parking lots if TransLink had way more Park and Ride lots. Why in the world can’t they rent part of parking malls near SkyTrain stations, parking lots that are never totally full! And to think that there are towns that actually provide free parking for any car owner with a transit commuter pass!

    Re dfrog

    July 1, 2009 at 12:18 am

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