Public RealmTransportation/TransitUrban Development

Why parking is taking a back seat in many municipalities

By October 4, 2016 No Comments

“It’s not the ‘60s anymore; parking rules need to grow up” explains this City of Ottawa video.

The City of Hamilton is pounding the pavement. This week a proposal to update zoning along Hamilton’s upcoming LRT corridor goes to committee, and includes plans to reduce parking minimums and introduce a parking maximum for the first time.

Hamilton is addressing the big parking conundrum many municipalities across Canada are asking themselves: What’s the best way to create compact, walkable communities along transit lines and reduce large surface parking lots that take up valuable urban space, while improving the bottom line for transit-friendly development?

In transit-oriented neighbourhoods, underground parking is most efficient as it liberates surface space to locate jobs, retail, homes and public spaces next to transit. But it can be very expensive, costing anywhere from $40,000 up to $60,000 per space in places like downtown Toronto. This is as much as 15 times more expensive than surface parking.

Build less, charge less

Parking requirements have a major impact on a neighbourhood’s urban design, walkability, and affordability. Most city bylaws include minimum vehicle parking requirements mandating the amount of space required to ensure enough parking for employees, residents, and patrons.

However, many of these zoning requirements, especially in the GTHA, were developed between the 1960s to 1980s, when driving was the preferred transportation mode. These parking bylaws haven’t been overhauled to account for our changing preferences and behaviour in car usage.

Surface parking in low-density areas costs only $2,000 to $8,000 per space. As a result, many businesses and stores choose to locate in low-density neighbourhoods where surface parking is plentiful and free for customers and employees. Paid parking for downtown retail stores simply cannot compete with the free parking offered by big-box shopping.

Parking Lot by Nic Redhead (Flickr Creative Commons)

In fact, many of Toronto’s best loved neighbourhoods were developed before these parking standards came into effect and are more human-scaled and accessible for pedestrians. Some might argue, those qualities are precisely what make them so adored by Torontonians and tourists.

Car manufacturers are concerned that Millennials aren’t buying as many automobiles as previous generations. But it isn’t just young people and car manufacturers who have been affected. Toronto real estate developers have also noted a shift away from car ownership. Some have even been left with unsold parking spots they’re required to build as part of zoning bylaws.

The construction costs for underground parking (upwards of $60,000 per spot in downtown Toronto) are passed onto the homebuyer or renter and impacts affordability. For example a Portland analysis, found buildings that provided underground parking charged rents up to 63 per cent above those with a no parking option.

Parking is a global problem and cities around the world are responding to changes in parking and transportation attitudes in different ways. The City of London, for example, has eliminated minimum parking requirements. Seattle, Washington, removed parking requirements for areas in the downtown or transit-friendly neighbourhoods. New York City has also eliminated minimum parking requirements for low-income housing projects near transit.

Rock Star Parking in the GTHA

A number of municipalities in the GTHA are using different approaches to take back the asphalt from parking spaces. Removing parking spots improves affordability of transit-oriented developments for construction and homebuyers, and makes more space available for services such as sidewalks, bike lanes, and parks.

Reduce minimums

Most GTHA municipalities require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces per residential unit built.This cost inevitably gets passed onto homebuyers. In Toronto, the parking requirements are between 1 and 1.4 spaces per unit. In Mississauga, the parking requirements are between 1.15 and 1.95 parking spaces per unit.

Reduce downtown parking

Some municipalities have lower parking requirements for designated downtown zones. The City of Hamilton, for example, recognized that areas well served by transit require less parking, so it is greatly reducing parking requirements for downtown areas and eliminating them entirely in some retail zones.

Parking small and thinking big

With construction of the Markham Town Centre underway, the City embarked on a long-term parking strategy with the focus on providing off street, centralized public parking garages to help overcome the financial disincentives for developers to provide structured parking. This strategy limits the amount and location of surface parking, requires two-thirds of parking to be located within a structure, and has introduced on-street paid parking.

To the max

Markham and Vaughan have begun employing parking maximums for their transit accessible downtown centres, Markham Town Centre and Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. This can help reduce automobile dependence and housing costs by allowing developers to provide the appropriate level of parking for a multi-unit development given its location, walkability, and access to transit. Hamilton is introducing maximums along its LRT corridor.

Changing the ratios

The City of Mississauga’s parking by-law requires 1.15 spaces per unit for all downtown units, regardless of size. However, applying a parking ratio that is the same for both small and large units may act as a disincentive to build smaller, affordable units.

More recently, municipalities have begun varying parking requirements by unit size, as car ownership often increases with unit size. The City of Hamilton, for example, requires only .3 spaces for units less than 50 square meters.


In addition to lowering parking minimums, Seattle has proposed regulations that would require developers to provide residents in new developments near transit areas with bus passes, car share memberships, bike share memberships or similar services.

Car2go by Richard Eriksson

Not to be outdone, Calgary city council recently approved Cowtown’s first car-free condo. In addition to a condo, buyers also receive a new bicycle, free bike parking, and credit with a local car-sharing service.

The City of Vaughan has updated its zoning bylaw to include bicycle parking requirements.

Unlike the rest of the City, developments within the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre are required to provide bicycle parking for most uses such as commercial, institutional, and multi-unit residential. The number of bicycle spaces depends on the ground floor area of a development but a minimum of 6 bicycle spaces is required for most uses.

And of course, Toronto’s incredible expansion of its bike-share program is expected to result in even more residents becoming cyclists.

Parking our growth problems

With the updated provincial growth plan proposing greater intensification targets, especially around transit, municipalities are concerned about how these rules will impact development costs and housing affordability.

As Hamilton is showing, updating municipal bylaws and zoning are one of many tools that can help build more compact transit-oriented neighbourhoods and create the conditions to build more family-friendly homes that are more affordable in desirable neighbourhoods.

More and more cities are coming to a simple conclusion: They’ve got too much darn parking. Changing these habits can improve quality of life and and improve home affordability.In the Greater Golden Horseshoe, these types of strategies can help municipalities succeed economically while curbing sprawl and protecting the Greenbelt.