Is the meter about to expire on Vancouver's free street parking?

Post by Daniel Fontaine in


Free Parking
Why are environmentalists asking cities to ban water bottles while remaining silent on the issue of free parking - something they have control over.

A recent report debated at Vancouver Council regarding parking around the new Canada Line rapid transit stations got me thinking about what message cities are sending out when they provide “free” street parking. As everyone knows, the personal automobile is one of the main reasons why we’ve been debating the issue of climate change over the last decade. More cars and trucks means more CO2 emissions and a declining environment.

I’ve written here about the Symbolic Environmentalist Movement and their penchant to glom onto very sexy issues that grab media headlines and help to generate lucrative donations. The SEM has recently been pushing for a ban of plastic bags and water bottles as well as the planting of vegetable gardens in public spaces. Just imagine what might happen if the SEM worked with cities to actually make a difference regarding the use of the personal automobile in our big cities?

What if they asked cities to phase out “free” parking over the next five years? Today, there are millions of free parking spots across all of Canada’s major cities. This long-standing policy decision has encouraged automobile use over other more environmentally clean options.

Is it possible that Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson would be open as part of his Greenest City Action Team to phase out all free public parking by 2012? Here is how such a scheme might work.

First, remove all free parking from all major high traffic corridors and within one kilometre of any rapid transit stations by 2010. Replace this free street parking with a new cellular phone based parking system which is monitored by the city. Other than new signage, you would not require any costly infrastructure.

Secondly, on residential streets and less busy areas, implement a permit parking system. All homeowners would be granted one pass as part of paying their property taxes. If they want more passes, they would have to pay for the privilege. If they don’t want their pass, they can refuse it and get a credit of $30 per annum which will be applied to their annual property tax bill.

For Vancouver residents living in apartments, they too can apply for one free single permit and pay for any additional permits.

Any visitors or tourists visiting the city could simply register their plates through a new e-parking system already in use in cities like Vancouver. If you want to buy a week of parking at a non-metered site, simply use your cel phone and charge the week of parking on your credit card.

All hybrid and electric vehicles, bicycles and environmentally friendly forms of transportation would be entitled to free parking, anywhere in the city. That would included metered parking spots where they currently have to pay like all other gas guzzling SUVs.

The advantages are as follows:

  • Recognize and encourage enviro-friendly forms of transit
  • Reduced carbon emissions
  • Additional revenue for the city to build more bike lanes and provide free parking for enviro-friendly forms of transportation
  • Help to brand Vancouver as the first “no free parking” zone in the world
  • Generate income for city coffers from regional events taking place in Vancouver ie Fireworks
  • Limit the number of people parking in neighbourhoods that aren’t from the area

The disadvantages are:

  • Very politically risky for any Mayor and Council
  • An expanded bureaucracy may be needed to enforce non-compliance
  • More inconvenient for motorists
  • No more free parking

If the SEM were truly committed to making a difference and reducing our carbon footprint, these are the kinds of initiatives they would be advocating for rather than pushing for a ban on bottled water. Land use and public parking policy is something cities do have jurisdiction over, and perhaps the time has finally come for us to reverse the trend toward facilitating vehicle use.

While I am sure the engineering departments across Canada will find some fault in this concept, I think it one that is worth more discussion and debate. After all, there is no such thing as a free lunch, so why do we still offer up free parking?

Why don’t you weigh in on the issue and let us know what you think? Is this doable? Is it more politically risky than banning water bottles?


Well, it is a good alternative to raising property taxes. It is kind of ridiculous that we are taxing housing to subsidize transportation when housing is essential while driving is arguably a personal choice. Maybe instead of transferring a portion of the business tax to residential, we just start charging for all street parking. Sounds like a win-win solution.

They did get rid of free parking in Barcelona a few years ago. They are not only one of the greenest cities in the world, with only 3 tonnes of GHG emissions per capita, it is also one of the prettiest and most lively cities. Hard to argue with success.

Awesome post and great target. Hopefully the greenest city action team, Vancouver council, and every planner in the region reads this post.

One thing that you skirt around a bit is the practice of imposing minimum requirements for the provision of off-street parking. This practice - done by virtually every municipality in the Lower Mainland - compels developers and businesses to subsidize unsustainable transportation choices, whether they wish to or not. In the end, the costs associated with this are paid by all of us, through higher prices for all goods and services - from housing (for rent or purchase) or a sack of potatoes at the grocery store to a restaurant meal or a movie ticket. The off-street parking provided with every land use isn't free, even if we don't pay for it as a separate item. When you take the bus or bike to the store, part of your purchase still goes towards paying for parking space - as demanded by your municipality, regardless of whether the landlord or business deems it necessary to their success.

The negative aspects of this absurd practice are well documented: it distorts the form of buildings and development, makes adaptive reuse of historic structures far more complicated, drives up housing prices, and encourages ever more driving. In a region that prides itself on its enlightened livability and respect for the environment, it boggles the mind that municipalities force the provision of parking, rather than capping it - particularly where alternatives exist.

See for some of the best US research (by Donald Shoup at UCLA) on the patent absurdity of minimum parking requirements and some of the alternatives that progressive municipalities are pursuing.

The following papers are a good place to start:,Parking,Cities.pdf

Very glad to see this issue getting pushed forward by CityCaucus!


What an excellent idea! I say let’s all encourage Gregor Robertson to go for it. When the next election rolls around, Robertson and the Vision gang will go down in flames as they already so richly deserve. And then hopefully we can elect some civic politicians that have some common sense and at least some idea of the issues and realities that most Vancouver residents are struggling with. While I agree with getting parking off the main arteries and around transit stations, making everyone in the City pay is pretty heavy handed and I think it will be viewed that way by most people.

"...making everyone in the City pay is pretty heavy handed..."

The trouble with the current parking situation is that it does just that: makes everyone in the City pay for parking, bundled into the cost of goods, services, and housing.

If one wants to build a laneway house, the city will require off-street parking - that's paid for by sacrificing the design of the laneway house, your backyard, or both. If one wants to lease a retail space, part of the rent will go towards paying for off-street parking that the developer was forced to provide by the city - and as a customer, whether one arrives on foot, by bus/SkyTrain, or by bicycle, part of the purchase price goes towards paying for that parking. All the parking we drivers don't pay for directly certainly isn't free, given that it costs, on average somewhere between $20,000 and $40,000 to build a parking space in the Lower Mainland; these costs are invariably passed on indirectly in the form of higher prices for housing, goods, and services. Worse still, this regime ends up penalizing the region's transit-accessible town centres because it's comparatively more expensive and technically challenging to provide parking in a downtown-style location than beside a far away highway interchange.

Minimum parking requirements end up making us all pay for parking, whether or not we use or desire it, and whether or not our business plan demands it. By distorting the market based on the city's best guess as to possible demand (usually based on three or four data points from suburban US locations with poor transit service), these requirements inflate development costs (particularly for affordable housing), often result in terrible urban design, impose costs on all businesses, encourage dependence on driving, and promote sprawling land use patterns.

At any rate, I'm pleased to see that this topic is finally getting some attention.

Good article, great comments! I am a student at UBC working on the Cambie Corridor Planning Program, my group's focus is on parking policy for all modes. While information on parking policy isn't too difficult to find, this thread is linked to a wealth of internet resources. Likewise, some of the ideas and viewpoints expressed by commentators are really helpful (I especially like the justification of no-free parking policies provided by minimum parking requirements).

Check out!

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