It’s no secret that Canada is facing a significant housing shortage. But could the large amount of space used to park vehicles be part of the problem?
A recent Re/Max report analyzing housing market participation said the “vast majority” of lower-priced properties in the Greater Toronto Area are parking spaces, and that the majority of the 250 ‘properties’ listed for sale below the price of $400,000. There are parking spaces, lockers and vacant lots.
For housing advocates, this touched on a long-standing frustration.
“Four side-by-side parking spaces in a surface parking lot is about the same amount of space as a one-bedroom apartment,” said Mark Richardson of the Toronto-based housing advocacy group HousingNowTO. “If we’re going to spend money – particularly government money and time – on things that land, it’s better to use that space as a place for people rather than storage for empty cars.”
A 2021 report from Canadian Energy Systems Analysis Research, also known as CESAR, said Canada has exponentially more parking spaces than cars. The report says Canada has about 23 million light vehicles, but has between 71 and 97 million parking spaces.
This suggests that there are between 3.2 and 4.4 parking spaces for every car in the country.
In some cities, parking takes up most of the space in the city center. In Regina, for example, almost half of the private land in the city center is parking lots.
In the city of Toronto, a bylaw dictates that a parking space must be 5.6 meters long, 2.6 meters wide and have a vertical clearance of two meters. This equates to about 156 square feet for a single vehicle, while according to Canadian Real Estate magazine, the average condo size in Toronto is just under 650 square feet, about the same as the four parking spaces you cited. Richardson.
“It encourages expansion,” Richardson said. “It’s not being converted into housing and it’s contributing to our housing shortage.”
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According to the CESAR report, 40 per cent of Canada’s parking spaces are residential, 26 per cent are commercial and institutional and the remainder 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.
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Rebecca Clements, a researcher at the University of Sydney in Sydney, Australia, told Global News that Minimum Parking Regulations (MPR) have had a devastating impact on housing affordability in many industrialized countries, including Canada and the United States.
“This forces developers to include parking everywhere, which greatly contributes to construction costs,” he said. “MPRs also reduce the diversity of housing and non-residential land uses, effectively banning buildings without parking that might otherwise be excellent designs.”
In December 2021, the City of Toronto abolished parking minimums, following Edmonton’s lead.
Richardson said that was a result of advocacy from housing groups in Toronto, who have argued that parking minimums made it difficult to build affordable housing projects.
“We had a project in Toronto to build 32 units of affordable co-op housing for seniors. The old default bylaw said they needed 42 underground parking spaces. So it would have cost that nonprofit $4 million to create the parking lot before creating a single affordable housing unit,” he said.
“These parking minimums in many cases have existed since the 60s and 70s. It has taken us 40 years to get to this hole. It will take us at least 20 to get out of this,” he said.
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In addition to Toronto and Edmonton, the cities of High River, Alta. and Lunenberg, N.S., abolished local regulations on parking minimums in 2021. In December, the city councils of Vancouver and Saskatoon took similar steps. City of Regina seeking money from federal Housing Accelerator Fund, It is also looking to make changes to its parking rules.
According to the Parking Reform Network, a nonprofit that advocates for parking policy reforms, major American cities such as San Francisco, California, and Austin, Texas, 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 Japan, where on-street parking is “effectively prohibited” in Japan.
“There are MPRs in Japan, but they mainly apply to large offices and commercial buildings, so basically all homes and small and medium-sized retail establishments are exempt. This greatly helps provide more diversity and affordability of housing and buildings,” Clements said.
Japan also has a “parking test” rule, which means you can’t register a car without first securing a parking spot.
“This shifts the responsibility of parking onto the car owners themselves, rather than making it a general public issue, where car owners demand and expect parking to be provided everywhere in the public domain,” he said.
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But in Canada, experts say eliminating parking minimums won’t be enough and cities must start prioritizing development that is transit-friendly and building more developments within walking distance.
“We have a chicken and egg problem. The problem is we want dense development, but initially it’s not dense enough,” said Dawn Parker, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Planning. “Retail activities, other activities and places of employment are so dispersed that people still need to have a car.”
Parker recommends that, in the short term, cities build multi-level parking lots concentrated and contained in certain areas so that they can later be converted into housing units rather than sprawling parking lots that use land that could be available for housing.
Long term, Richardson says Canadian cities have a choice to make during this housing crisis.
“It’s the parking or it’s the people,” he said. “You can’t really have it both ways right now.”