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How parking drives automobility and harms us along the way

in Gadfly by

I was going to write this column about dangerous driving and the implications for vulnerable road users, particularly cyclists and pedestrians. There’s no shortage of fodder, as a glance though local headlines shows. A day rarely passes without reports of distracted driving, impaired driving, speeding, or speeding while impaired. So when VOCM reported that Newfoundland and Labrador’s traffic accident rate is almost double that of the Maritimes but “nobody really knows why,” I assume they were aiming for editorial sarcasm.

Then there was the spate of accidents involving cyclists. In June, a very experienced cyclist setting out to bike across Canada was killed just outside Holyrood. The following weeks brought several other reports of cyclists being hit by drivers (see here, here and here for examples). Nor were pedestrians spared (see here and here).

No wonder local biking forums are full of posts about close calls and testimonials from seasoned cyclists who now fear riding in traffic. 

But what more is there to say? The remedies are obvious: education, planning, legislation, enforcement. Drivers must learn to share the road safely with non-motorized users—the current Road Users Guide barely mentions cyclists—and the province might follow the lead of UK jurisdictions with hard-hitting campaigns on the consequences of reckless driving.

The province’s Highway Traffic Act ignores cyclists, except to regulate them. In contrast, Ontario and Nova Scotia recently passed laws requiring drivers to leave at least a metre between their vehicle and any cyclist they pass. Similarly, given the undeniable connection between vehicle speed and risk to life, speed limits could be lowered in residential areas.

People will still make mistakes of course. In Sweden (and elsewhere) government has responded by designing transport systems that prevent human error from becoming a matter of life or death. Its Vision Zero initiative is described as an “approach to road safety thinking [that] can be summarized in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable.”

When driving poses such obvious and devastating hazards, why worry about parking?

Dangerous parking I (the obvious): Idling

I live next to Cavell Avenue Playground in St. John’s, a neighbourhood park with a play area for kids and a community garden. People use this green space to walk their dogs, eat lunch or have a smoke, watch birds (the place hosts species ranging from songbirds to hawks), toss a ball and take wheelchair-using residents of the Miller Centre for a turn in the fresh air.

A couple of weeks ago, my partner and I looked out to see several cars sitting in the middle of the field, engines running, headlights on. The next night, the cars were back — with friends. Ditto for every night after that, until the park became a parking lot, vehicles ranged next to the swings and scattered around the field. The city eventually barricaded the entrance to the playground in an effort to prevent people from driving into the park. Now, the drivers stop at the edge, sitting in the no parking zone late into the evening.

Cavell Playground is a PokéStop.

Photo by Robin Whitaker.
Cavell Playground in St. John’s has been designated as a PokéStop for the new Pokémon Go game, which has resulted in locals driving into the park and idling their cars on the grass while playing the game inside their vehicles. Photo by Robin Whitaker.

Pokémon Go has been vaunted for its physical and mental health benefits, as players get outside, walk more and interact socially. But it seems that many Pokémon players around here don’t want to jeopardize our ranking as the unhealthiest Canadian province. Large numbers drive rather than walk or bike to PokéStops, and many of them can’t be arsed to turn their vehicles off, let alone get out of them, when they arrive.

These players are not just missing out on the personal benefits touted for the game, they’re hurting the rest of us too; idling poisons.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), if Canadian drivers reduced their idling time by three minutes a day for a year, it would eliminate 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions — the equivalent of taking 320,000 cars off of the road for that year. Vehicle emissions also put people, particularly children, in harm’s way by causing and exacerbating asthma, lung cancer and heart disease.

If that’s not incentive enough, traffic pollution is highly toxic and aging to skin, most visibly through wrinkles and pigment spots. Besides, idling damages engines and wastes gasoline, the post-budget cost of which is much lamented in these parts.

But this is one public bad we can tackle without starting from scratch. Other places have already addressed the issue proactively. Some even ban drive-thrus in an effort to cut back on idling-related emissions, forcing people to walk as much as 30 seconds to buy a double-double. And NRC offers a template by-law for municipalities.

As with reckless driving, once people understand the issues, presumably they’ll grant that idling is dangerous even if they honour that knowledge in the breach. It takes more effort to see parking as such as a problem. Perhaps this is because parking seems like a non-activity, occurring in what the anthropologist Marc Augé calls non-places: zones that are so interchangeable they are not viewed as significant places.

Dangerous parking II (the counter-intuitive): Parking breeds driving

You might assume that parking infrastructure increases in response to demand: more drivers need more parking. Yet urban planning research indicates that the causal flow often runs the other way: “increases in parking tended to precede growth in car commuting.”

More parking, particularly if drivers pay little at the point of use, encourages people to drive, creating an urban environment where walking and biking are harder and less attractive.

Consider the cultural biases involved when a St. John’s parking enforcement officer told Ricky Saunders last month that it was illegal to park the bike and trailer he uses to collect recyclables in a paid-up meter slot downtown, where there is almost no formal provision for bike parking, because a bicycle is not a motor vehicle.

City councillors quickly recognized the absurdity of the situation and want to address it (kudos to Ward Councillor Jonathan Galgay). But by highlighting the de facto priority given to driving, this incident points to a bigger problem: the extent to which parking provision contributes to environmental, social and economic harm.

The hidden economic costs of parking

To start with the economic: parking provision costs money, a lot of money. The brunt of that cost is not borne by drivers. Most parking is massively subsidized.

Take Memorial University. Around this time last year, the university announced it was paving three campus green spaces to offset the loss of 400-odd spots to a new science building. Parking on campus is always a crunch at the university, given that around 19,000 people share 4,000 spots.

Despite this, Memorial students and employees alike feel entitled to cheap and convenient parking. The collective agreement between the faculty union (MUNFA) and the university guarantees each MUNFA member a conveniently located parking space, the fees for which “shall increase no more than five (5) percent per year from those in place April 1, 2014.”

 More parking, particularly if drivers pay little at the point of use, encourages people to drive, creating an urban environment where walking and biking are harder and less attractive.

My parking spot works out to about $5 a month. I rarely use it when the weather is good enough to bike, but at that price, what incentive is there to forgo a permit? Given the flat rate, what, other than personal inclination, would persuade me not to drive to work any time I felt like it? The flip side is that my spot sits empty at times when someone else could use it.

Students, meanwhile, think they should have free on-campus parking: “I’ve had days in final exams last semester where I’d be there 17 hours some days in the library, and it would cost me $12 per day for parking. Living on a student budget, I cannot afford to go to MUN to study,” one told The Muse. Another said that there have been days when she “actually had to go home after looking for a spot for about an hour unsuccessfully.”

Thing is, “free” parking is not really free. Back in 2007, Memorial University published a campus master plan that put the annual cost of maintenance at $257 per parking spot. Combined with capital costs amortized over 25 years, the average annual cost for a single slot was over $1,000. “As a result,” the document stated, “Memorial uses tuition and government grants to subsidize parking.”

If I were a student or employee who didn’t drive to MUN, I might just take exception to my peers’ demands for plentiful “cheap” or “free” parking. Likewise, cyclists, pedestrians and public transit users who shop where there is free or cheap parking subsidize drivers, as we all pay the same amount at the till regardless of how we arrived at the store. As I argued here last year, when people complain that bike lanes cut into their parking spots, they ignore how much non-drivers pay for the infrastructure, construction and maintenance costs of their parking and driving habits.

All that’s true, you might say, but doesn’t ample parking stimulate the local economy? Think again. Significant research suggests that businesses vastly overestimate the importance of abundant parking to their trade. The Atlantic’s Citylab compiled “every major study” they could find on the subject and “they all reach a similar conclusion: replacing on-street parking with a bike lane has little to no impact on local business, and in some cases might even increase business.”

Environmental costs: impermeable surfaces and emissions

By its nature, pavement causes problems. Some of the most obvious include the heat island effect and flooding. Since pollutants accumulate on paved surfaces, run-off from roads and parking lots is especially dangerous, a problem exacerbated to the extent that paving destroys vegetation. Trees both mitigate climate change and reduce flood risks, as their roots form a network of channels that direct water deep underground where it can be absorbed. Parking entails an enormous volume of embedded emissions, reflecting both construction and use.

Now, look again at the comments from the MUN students. The first “cannot afford to go to MUN to study” if he has to pay $12 a day. He means he cannot afford to drive to MUN to study. (Does he fit the costs of a vehicle into “a student budget”? Maybe he has no choice because he lives in an exurb without public transit to the city?) The second says she sometimes drives around looking for parking for an hour.

According to Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking, this scenario is not unusual: “a surprising amount of traffic isn’t caused by people who are on their way somewhere. Rather, it is caused by those who have already arrived. Streets are clogged, in part, by drivers searching for a place to park.”

Shoup’s solution is to charge enough for parking that people won’t hoard cheap spots. That way, spots will be available when people really need them, with the added benefits of reduced congestion and reduced vehicle emissions. If the extra revenue generated goes to improving public services, it will get public support. If that revenue went to improved public transport and bike lanes, maybe fewer MUN students would equate “going” to campus with driving there.

To be fair, MUN is making a start by doubling the metered rate to $1.50 per hour. Given that Dalhousie charges $2 an hour, the University of British Columbia charges $1.75 per half hour and the University of Winnipeg $3 an hour, this is not radical. More pertinently, those universities charge vastly more for parking permits than Memorial. It’s time for campus unions, including my own, to swallow this pill for the greater good. (And perhaps also to consider payment schemes that encourage people to find another way to campus whenever practicable.)

Dangerous parking III: Social harm

But parking has other effects too.

Research by engineer Norman Garrick and his colleagues found that cities that increased available parking relative to other kinds of land use lost revenue as well as residents and jobs. Partly this is because excessive parking is at odds with the things that make a city liveable. But ample urban parking, like commuter highways, facilitates sprawling development that may be cheaper for individual homeowners but costs us dearly on the collective level.

In response, some cities are adopting “parking maximums” in key areas: rather than require a minimum number of parking spots in new developments, they impose limits on the amount of parking, with a view to recapturing public space so that people can enjoy and use it.

Some businesses and ordinary citizens are even transforming metered parking spaces into public parklets, as Matthew Howse and Meaghan Barnhill did when they paid the meter fee to rent a parking space in downtown St. John’s for an afternoon last week.

Putting parking in the headlights

The provincial government is in the midst of a consultation on how we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Transportation is the second largest contributor of GHGs for this province, accounting for more than a third of the total and only slightly behind industry. Naturally, this raises the question of how to reduce GHG emissions caused by driving.

But most vehicles spend 95 percent of their time parked. This is not only a massively inefficient use of resources, including urban space. It suggests that if we’re serious about tackling climate change, we need to focus as much on the dangers of parking as we do on driving.

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