By Carolyn Krasnow, Ph.D
In recent years, urban planners and community leaders across Canada have turned to “Smart Growth” planning approaches like Complete Streets and New Urbanism to help communities address common challenges associated with downtown planning in the era of the automobile. After decades of urban design focusing on the primacy of the auto, approaches focus on creating communities and streetscapes that provide, among other things, better integration of multi-modal transportation and better walking environments. The point of these planning approaches is to create healthier, less congested and ultimately more livable communities that also foster economic and commercial development.
Arising in the U.S. but quickly becoming international movements, Smart Growth-influenced developments and streetscape upgrades have cropped up throughout Canada. Canadian cities including Mont-Saint-Hilaire in Quebec, Whitehorse in Yukon, and Markham, Ontario have made their communities more walkable and bicycle-friendly, and improved the quality of life for residents. UniverCity in British Columbia and McKenzie Towne in Calgary were created as new communities with sustainable and/or new urbanist principles.
Creating urban environments that have a better balance of transportation modes isn’t as easy as it sounds. Critics of New Urbanism contend that it still accommodates “car culture” more than is desirable, and many people would like to see greatly reduced parking requirements for new developments and cities alike. And given the aging population, decreasing car ownerships trends among younger people, and the rise of car sharing, there is plenty of reason to plan parking with reduced needs in mind. But on the flip side, in most places cars are still the primary form of transportation for most people; not taking them into account adequately can hurt existing businesses and new ones.
A developer we worked with on a transit-oriented development in a vibrant Canadian city came up against this problem as they planned their development: they recognized the environmental, social and financial benefits of minimizing the number of parking spaces, and they worried about overbuilding parking in an era when alternative transportation is on the rise. But as they worked on leasing plans for residential and commercial space they understood that too little parking could limit their market. Sure you can find residential tenants who don’t own cars, but can you find enough of them to make a building lease fully at an average of a half space per unit? Maybe, or maybe not now but some years down the road.
The Numbers Game
Trying to find the balance between forward-thinking minimalism and current-market pragmatism requires careful evaluation, whether you are trying to right-size a downtown parking system or plan a new parking system for a New Urbanist development. Yet many cities, planners and developers are still referring back to old codes and rules of thumb that reflect parking generation rates in the absence of alternatives or demand management. I’ve even seen reports by consultants that estimate what a downtown should be generating based on square feet of development and standard industry ratios, instead of actually analyzing the unique patterns of a city and the ways in which industry ratios are being reduced through foot traffic, transit, and shared use. The result? The study will recommend parking that isn’t needed. The industry ratios are deliberately based on studies of land uses that lack shared parking, transit access or other mitigating factors; they are meant to show the maximum probable demand. With transit, foot traffic, and shared use of parking between land uses with different peak hours, cities rarely generate parking at standard rates. Similarly, using old codes is likely to over-project parking needs since it won’t take into account changing approaches to urban living. Basing a recommendation on rules of thumb rather than real conditions is the start of a lot of misunderstanding.
Art and Science
Codes and ratios all need to be rethought for a given market, with careful evaluation of the realistic impact of transit usage, bike usage, car sharing, car ownership trends and other issues and options that reduce the likelihood of residents owning cars and shoppers/employees using them to come to an area. Walk-in traffic can also change over time as an area becomes more dense, and needs to be carefully considered.
Perhaps the most subtle and challenging part of the puzzle is the market issues. Parking “consumers” weigh cost and convenience. In a downtown where rates are not well stratified – and in many places they are not – everyone will compete for the most convenient spaces. Where there is a premium for the best spaces and a considerable discount for the inconvenient or otherwise undesirable ones (down a hill, in a garage, etc.), some people will opt for the less convenient but cheaper spaces. Not everyone has to change their behavior, just enough people to mitigate congestion on the busiest streets. Similarly, we’ve worked on TOD developments that want to encourage transit use, but are challenged by parking markets whose rates are comparable to the cost of a monthly transit pass. Some people will choose transit anyway, but it will be harder to reach transit goals where there is no strong disincentive to drive. Having the alternative available isn’t enough. In working on TOD projects, like the one in Canada that we discussed earlier, we can’t just project how many spaces are needed, we have to project how many spaces are needed in the context of a very specific constellation of alternatives, market prices, expectations, and demographics.
Putting It All Together
In most places, cars aren’t dispensable just yet, and most Smart Growth initiatives take that into account. It’s vital to be forward thinking and not rely on old data and old ideas about travel. It’s also vital to be pragmatic about the many factors that affect decisions about transportation. The decisions planners make about how and where to provide parking, and at what price, can help create a parking system that combats sprawl and over-reliance on the single occupant vehicle without creating a project whose transportation challenges become an impediment to success.