It’s no secret that Canada is facing a major housing shortage. But could the sheer amount of space used for parking vehicles be part of the problem?
A recent Re/Max report looking at participation in the housing market said the “vast majority” of lower-priced properties in the Greater Toronto Area are parking spaces, and that most of the 250 ‘properties’ listed for sale under the $400,000 price point are parking spaces, lockers and vacant land.
For housing advocates, it touched on a longtime frustration.
“Four parking spaces side-by-side on a surface parking lot is about the same amount of space as a one-bedroom apartment,” said Mark Richardson, from the Toronto-based housing advocacy group HousingNowTO. “If we’re going to spend money – particularly government money and government time – on things that land, that space is better used as places for people rather than empty car storage.”
A 2021 report by the Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research, also known as CESAR, said Canada has exponentially more parking spaces than cars. The report said Canada has around 23 million light-duty vehicles but has somewhere between 71 million to 97 million parking spots.
That suggests there are 3.2 to 4.4 parking spots for every car in the country.
In some cities, parking takes up most of the space in the city’s downtown core. In Regina, for example, nearly half of private land in the city’s downtown core is parking lots.
In the city of Toronto, a bylaw dictates that a parking spot should be 5.6 metres in length, 2.6 metres in width and have a vertical clearance of two metres. This comes to around 156 square feet for a single vehicle, while according to Canadian Real Estate Magazine, the size of the average Toronto condo is just under 650 square feet – around the same as the four parking spots Richardson cited.
“It encourages sprawl,” Richardson said. “It’s not being turned into housing and it helps lead to our housing shortage.”
According to the CESAR report, 40 per cent of Canada’s parking spaces are residential, 26 per cent are commercial and institutional, and the balance are “on-road” spaces.
Much of this has to do with “parking minimums” – or the requirement that developers must build a certain number of parking spaces for any new development.
Rebecca Clements, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia, told Global News that Minimum Parking Regulations (MPRs) have had a devastating impact on housing affordability in many industrialized nations including Canada and the United States.
“This forces developers to include parking everywhere, greatly contributing to building costs,” she said. “MPRs also reduce the diversity of housing and non-residential land uses, by effectively prohibiting zero-parking buildings which might otherwise be excellent designs.”
In December 2021, the City of Toronto abolished parking minimums, following Edmonton’s lead.
Richardson said that was the result of advocacy by housing groups in Toronto, who have argued parking minimums made it hard for affordable housing projects to be built.
“We had a project in Toronto where for 32 units of seniors’ co-op affordable housing. The old default bylaw said they needed 42 underground parking spaces. So that would have cost that not-for-profit $4 million to create the parking before they created a single unit of affordable housing,” he said.
“These parking minimums in many cases have been around since the 60s and the 70s. It’s taken us 40 years to get into this hole. It’s going to take us at least 20 to get out of it,” he said.
Are parking minimums on the way out?
In addition to Toronto and Edmonton, the cities of High River, Alta. and Lunenberg, N.S., abolished local regulations for parking minimums in 2021. In December, city councils in Vancouver and Saskatoon took similar measures. The city of Regina, which is seeking money from the federal Housing Accelerator Fund, is also looking to make changes to its parking regulations.
According to the Parking Reform Network, a non-profit that advocates for parking policy reforms, major American cities like San Francisco, CA, and Austin, TX., have also abolished such measures.
In New Zealand, the National Policy Statement – Urban Development requires all municipalities to remove parking requirements for new developments.
Clements said one of the most successful examples is that of Japan, where on-street parking is “effectively banned” in Japan.
“There are MPRs in Japan, but they mainly apply to large offices and commercial buildings, so basically all small to medium homes and retail establishments are exempt. This helps greatly with offering more home and building diversity, and affordability,” Clements said.
Japan also has a “proof of parking” rule, which means you cannot register a car without first having secured a parking spot for it.
“This shifts the responsibility for parking onto the car owners themselves, rather than making it the general public’s problem, where car owners demand and expect parking to be provided for them everywhere in the public domain,” she said.
But in Canada, experts say removing parking minimums won’t be enough and cities need to start prioritizing development that is transit-friendly and building more walking distance developments.
“We have a chicken and egg problem. The problem is we want dense development but development isn’t initially dense enough,” said Dawn Parker, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. “Retail activities, other activities, employment locations are so spread-out people still need to have a car.”
Parker recommends that in the short run, cities build multi-level parking lots concentrated and contained to certain areas in a way that they can later be converted into housing units rather than sprawling parking lots that use up land that could be available for housing.
In the long run, Richardson says Canadian cities have a choice facing them during this housing crisis.
“It’s parking or it’s people,” he said. “You really can’t have both at this point.”