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Analysis
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Transportation
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Municipal Politics

Parking for Greater Social Equity?

It’s possible! Current debates on parking costs miss the chance to build a stronger, more inclusive city.

By Melody Ma 19 Jun 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Melody Ma, a Tyee contributing editor, is a culture and neighbourhood advocate and tech worker in Vancouver.

Ask people to pay for parking — or pay more — and you’ll be plunged into heated public debate and endless media coverage. Last year, the battleground was Spanish Banks. This year, it was Granville Island’s turn.

The debates are typically characterized as a fight between evil car-dependent gas guzzlers and progressive advocates for environmentally friendly transportation modes — walking, cycling, transit and car-sharing.

If parking costs were higher, advocates argue, more drivers would choose environmentally friendly modes of transportation.

That might be true, if you’re an able-bodied person in good health who can afford to live in Vancouver’s city centre and doesn’t have dependents who are toddlers, elderly or disabled. For many others, driving isn’t a choice, but a necessity.

What if we rethought parking policy and designed it with equity as a key goal? What would parking policy look like? Could we settle this public parking debate once and for all?

Parking based on neighbourhood context

I was shocked to learn recently that metered parking in Chinatown now costs as much as $4 per hour. That’s higher than most areas in the downtown core, and parts of Yaletown are a mere $1 per hour.

Chinatown is poorly served by rapid transit, and frequented by families with small children and seniors with mobility challenges. It is also a neighbourhood with struggling traditional retailers and cultural destinations that cannot rely solely on foot traffic. They depend on people willing to travel to Chinatown to meet their needs — like shoppers for 25-pound bags of rice. For those people, $4 per hour is a significant price, especially compared with the $7 dim sum at Kam Wai or affordable Chinese BBQ at Dollar Meats.

Our decisions around costs aren’t always rational. Economist Dan Ariely, in his book Predictably Irrational, describes the famous experiment by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on the relativity of money. They found that people will drive across town for 15 minutes to save $7 off a $25 pen, but would not do the same for a $7 discount on a $500 suit. Although the benefits and costs were the same, people’s behaviour was different.

The City of Vancouver doesn’t take the principle of money relativity into account when it sets metered parking rates.

Instead, it looks at supply and demand using a formula. If peak occupancy levels between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. are above 85 per cent in a calendar year (or half-year if the spots are in a Business Improvement Area and the association requests a review), the city will bump the rate up by $1 an hour. If occupancy is below 60 per cent, it will cut rates by $1 an hour. There is no room for negotiation or consideration of factors like affordability or community impact.

In a commercial area, setting parking rates this way can eventually lead to parking prices that are completely out-of-sync with the cost of an average shopping trip in the area. This misalignment can easily drive out-of-area clientele to take their business elsewhere, hurting already struggling businesses in places like Chinatown.

The Hua Foundation interviewed Chinatown businesses for its 2018 Social Cohesion Report and found that “many businesses expressed a desire to see more car parking in the neighbourhood, specifically cheaper rates/free parking... as the availability of safe, affordable and convenient parking remains an important factor for many of their customers.”

851px version of ChinatownParking.jpg
Metered parking in Chinatown now costs as much as $4 per hour, which hurts businesses. Photo by John Kinsella, Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

Consider instead a metered parking policy that sees rates linked to the average price of a shopping trip in an area. High-end retail areas like Burrard Street, home to Tiffany & Co and Hermès, would have higher than average parking rates, while affordable places like Chinatown would have lower rates. That’s more equitable for businesses, especially ones serving low- and middle-income clients, and their customers.

Parking based on transportation availability

When the Vancouver Park Board proposed parking fees for Spanish Banks, more than 10,000 people signed a petition urging it to ditch the plan. One of the key arguments was that Spanish Banks is poorly served by transportation, unlike beaches at Kits and Jericho. They argued it’s unfair to penalize citizens for poor transit planning, noting that a free family destination would become less accessible in an already unaffordable city.

Citizens who pushed back on the Granville Island parking fees also cited poor transportation as a key reason for their dissatisfaction. The Hua Foundation found that “while Chinatown is somewhat transit accessible, it is important to note that a relatively large proportion of Chinatown consumers may have mobility issues that makes access to rapid transit challenging.”

Spanish Banks, Granville Island and Chinatown are all free family-friendly destinations without convenient connectivity to rapid transit hubs. One could argue high demand for parking in these areas is a lagging indicator of transit inaccessibility.

The jurisdictions that own those public parking areas — the city, park board and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. (the federal Crown corporation that owns Granville Island) — could easily blame TransLink for lack of transit service to those destinations.

However, this is also where they can innovate on transportation and parking policy.

Before introducing new or higher parking fees for public destinations poorly served by transit, the responsible agencies could add “last mile” transportation connections between major transit corridors and the destination to discourage car use.

In the case of Spanish Banks, the park board could provide a mini shuttle that connects visitors from the 84 and 99 B-Line bus stops to the beach. For Chinatown, the city and the local Business Improvement Association could operate free or low-cost shuttles between nearby SkyTrain stations and the neighbourhood.

Large airports, theme parks, Las Vegas casinos and tech campuses already use shuttles and trains that quickly carry passengers over short distances. Governments could do the same.

Indeed, the City of Vancouver did propose an autonomous shuttle between Main Street-Science World SkyTrain station and Granville Island in its bid in the federal Smart Cities Challenge. Though the city did not win the $50-million prize, we now have a blueprint of what this “smart corridor” could look like and an indication there is a will to advocate for a last-mile transportation options.

More accessible parking

When bike share terminals gobbled up parking spaces around the city, Allison Tom wrote a letter to the then-mayor and council published in The Tyee titled “I’m Disabled and City’s Bike Friendly Efforts Don’t Feel Friendly to Me.” She called out the ableist bias in transportation planning and policy that neglect the accessibility needs of people with disabilities.

Tom describes the hardships faced by people with disabilities when parking spots are reduced. She thoughtfully advocates for more accessible parking spots, a public education campaign about their importance and better enforcement against people using accessible parking without proper permits.

But what if we treated accessible parking not as an afterthought, but a fundamental principle in equitable parking policy rid of ableism?

Not only would there be more accessible parking everywhere, but those spots would be strategically placed to ensure people with disabilities can have maximum mobility around the city.

Toronto goes even further by offering free limited-time parking to people with accessible parking permits. Vancouver can do the same to recognize that cars are often necessary for people with disabilities.

851px version of ParkingSpotsExpectantMothers.jpg
Photo by Ricky Romero, Creative Commons license CC BY-NC 2.0.

Family-oriented parking

I remember when I first saw signs at a mall reserving some spaces for expectant mothers and families with toddlers. I thought this was an ingenious move to provide courtesy and convenience to what were likely high-value customers.

Designated “Expectant Mothers” and “Families with Children” parking spots are now common in large shopping centres like Oakridge Centre and stores like IKEA because they’re good for business.

Even on public transit, expectant mothers and parents with strollers already receive priority and designated seating. A similar courtesy, separate from accessible parking, should be offered in public parking lots for destinations like Spanish Banks and Granville Island. This small step will make Vancouver a more caring, feminist and family-friendly city.

Public parking in Vancouver is regarded strictly as a supply and demand problem. But rather than viewing it simply as an environmentally harmful privilege or a way to raise revenue, we should reposition public parking policy to focus it on people, with equity as a first principle.

Otherwise, our public parking policy will continue to favour the privileged and penalize those who need it the most.  [Tyee]

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