Stephen Rees's blog

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

“700 Vancouver parking spaces to be transformed into parks”

with 7 comments

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

7 Responses

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  1. The CIty of Vancouver has been removing on street parking for bike routes. Quite a few were removed for the Carrall and Central Valley Greenways. Even more are proposed to be removed for the Hornby Separated Bike Lanes.

    The Info Session is Wednesday, August 11, 2010, 11–7 p.m. in the rotunda of the Pacific Centre Mall at Howe and Georgia streets.

    More info at:

    The city is also planning a pilot bike corral at 6th and Commercial which I believe will park several bikes in space that was automobile parking.

    On Granville Street several of the on sidewalk parking spaces have been removed to allow larger patios by blocking off the space with bicycle racks. This parking is rarely used. They could get rid of most of it and no one would likely even notice.

    Yes, there is no official policy like in Copenhagen but the city is slowing decreasing on-street parking.

    It was also great to see no on-street parking on #3 Road in Richmond when they redid the street. I don’t think there was any before but still, at least they have moved beyond the flawed theory that on-street parking improved the pedestrian environment.


    August 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm

  2. Looks like the headline has been fixed.


    August 10, 2010 at 3:59 pm

  3. Someone at the Sun reads my blog!

    Parking along No 3 Road has always been provided by the strip malls: it is private and off street. It is also dedicated to the customers of each mall, thus generating a huge number of very short trips between destinations to avoid the risk of towing. The tow truck companies post “spotters” to catch those daring to walk away!

    The switch from parking to cycling is welcome: it is just not nearly enough!

    Stephen Rees

    August 10, 2010 at 4:23 pm

  4. I have acquaintances in Japan, where one cannot buy a car if one doesn’t have a parking spot that is NOT on the street.

    I was surprised, the first tine I was there, to see that the Japanese cram a lot of people in their towns yet have more private houses and low rise buildings that in equally dense Europe.

    This is achieved by having houses take most of their lot, have narrow streets (garbage and fire trucks are smaller in order to fit) and even eliminating sidewalks in many residential streets.
    The front yard is replaced by rows of flower pots against the front of the house and the private parking spot or garage is extremely tight–no one here could park in these spots.

    A house with only 1 or 2 bedrooms will go up to 3/ 4 floors. In many cases homeowners on a block will prefer to have a slightly bigger house so all their cars will be staked up 2 or 3 high in a small lot owned by the block homeowners.

    Then there are the public parkings that are tall thin towers. A driver brings the front of his car just inside the ground floor door of the parking tower, a machine pull it inside and store it automatically up and away inside the tower.

    Of course there is no parking anytime along major avenues. And elevated freeways fly over whole neighborhoods, leaving these neighborhoods free from all the cars and trucks that have no business there.

    Red frog

    August 10, 2010 at 9:13 pm

  5. I forgot to mention that there are lots of green spaces in Japanese towns..some are ordinary public parks but most are the big gardens of temples and shrines and are, for the most part, open to the public.

    Red frog

    August 10, 2010 at 9:52 pm

  6. You got me thinking Stephen (once again).

    Living in New West, I can pay $10/year to get a pass that allows me to park a car in front of my house 24/7. How much should I expect to pay to have the same 8 square metres in front of my house torn up and a community garden plot put in? Hmmm….

    Pat Johnstone

    August 11, 2010 at 3:24 pm

  7. I thought of this idea just the other day, not sure if anyone else has brought it up in the public sphere:

    What if we could pay for neighborhood parking permits and *not* park a car? Instead we can park bikes or “park” a garden. For bikes, it would be particularly useful if you could setup small storage bins (like those near Skytrains) to keep bikes dry and safe. Gardens could be setup in planters. So long as they were temporary installations, it would practical, would it not? In fact, is there any law prohibiting it from being done right now?

    It would be interesting to make this an option for people and see just how many would take it up. I imagine some neighborhoods may be particularly enthusiastic about it and we may find some entire street blocks voluntarily turn into non-car parking. Others may not change in a single bit.

    It sounds like a radical idea on the surface, but it doesn’t seem that crazy the more I think about it.


    August 16, 2010 at 11:38 pm

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