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

Archive for August 10th, 2010

“700 Vancouver parking spaces to be transformed into parks”

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The Vancouver Sun reports this morning on an international effort to repurpose parking spaces

On Sept. 17, volunteers from 140 cities in 21 countries will transform more than 700 metered parking spaces into mini public parks.

So, as seems to be common at the Sun, the headline is misleading. The VSPN are going to do one parking space in Vancouver, not 700. And not until next month – so lets watch the letters column for fulminations before then. They hope others will follow suit – but 700 is the global expectation, not the local or regional one.

Actually it is a great headline – if it were true. There are plenty of places in Vancouver which have a dearth of public open space, and a city policy that declared its intention to eliminate parking spaces to reclaim the land for “higher and better uses” – like sitting in the sun and watching the world go by – would get my vote.

Far too much land in North American cities is devoted to cars – and far too much of that to cars that are not going anywhere. As a transportation system, the private automobile is dreadfully inefficient. As a user of urban space even more so. We already know that the Canada Line moves more people than ten lanes of freeway – the Premeir told us so. Of course, he is still building more freeway not more transit. But once those cars get to their destinations they just sit and wait for the return trip.

Critics of commuter rail – like me – point to the waste of resources when a train sits for 20 hours a day doing nothing just so it can make one round trip a day from Mission to Vancouver.  On weekdays only. But many cars in cities do not move at all. They are owned as “just in case” vehicles. Indeed, my impression when I revisited the place of my birth in East Ham, London is that people there now own cars just to be sure to hang on to the space in front of their house. If they moved the car, there would be nowhere to park once they got back! But few people seem concerned that they have tied up a lot of capital of their own – and a lot of land – by buying a car and then leaving it idle most of the time. And having a car available all the time gives one a great disincentive to use any other method of getting around. Since there is all that money tied up in depreciation, maintenance and insurance, one might as well get some use out of it.  All that drivers tend to look at is the marginal cost of car use – sometimes gas but mostly parking cost and the time the trip will take – including searching for a free spot at the trip end.  We know for certain that if we want to get people to stop using cars and use other modes, then tackling parking – making it scarcer and more expensive – is one of the more effective ways of doing so. Especially since few politicians will even talk about road user charges.

I frequently refer to Copenhagen as an example – ever since I heard Jan Gehl mention it. A policy there committed that city to reduce the space allocated to cars by a small amount every year (parking and moving). This was based on the “boiling frog” principle: a little  bit each year is not noticed, but over time is very effective. The policy has to be adhered to consistently for a long period of time. In their case they managed that, something we seem incapable of managing. So forty years later they are much further ahead at dealing with congestion, livability, greenhouse gas emissions and so on – all the things that we say we care about, but not enough to actually do anything effective.

Instead we – and indeed most of North America and many other places – talk about “balanced” transportation policies. This is actually code. What it means is stick to policies which favour car owners – who happen at present to be most of those who vote – and do not rock the boat too hard when decisions on human health, housing, global warming, crime – you name it they all get impacted – have to be made. We stick to what we have always done, and then look surprised when we get the same or worse outcomes.

By curious coincidence, Jarrett Walker who is currently in San Francisco, describes a new experiment in trying to determine the market price of parking there – not to make it more scarce, but to determine the right price.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 10, 2010 at 12:15 pm

Posted in parking