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Are BC's drinking and driving laws in conflict with parking requirements for bars?

There’s no better measure of our perverse relationship with cars than the fact that nearly every city and town in North America has laws requiring drinking establishments to provide parking, and yet roadside memorials to victims of drunk driving are mostly illegal. A single year of alcohol-impaired driving kills more Americans than the last decade of war has, but our land use codes practically encourage driving home from taverns. Bar owners can be held legally liable for their patrons who imbibe too much, but our laws force owners to offer parking for their customers.

Can we stop the madness?

In this post, we take a look at how Northwest municipalities deal with parking at drinking establishments. Who gets it wrong, and who gets it (almost) right? The answers may surprise you. At the end, I’ll explain how easy it would be to fix the problem.

Let’s start with the laggards.

Despite its vaunted reputation for sustainable urbanism, Vancouver, BC may have among the worst parking mandates in the region (code, p. 9). Calculated based on the amount of floor space open to the public, the baseline requirement for businesses that sell liquor for on-site consumption is 1 parking space per 60 square feet (5.6 square metres).

Given that a typical parking space somewhere in the range of 170 square feet, and that the smallest parking space Vancouver allows is 148 square feet, it means that in many cases Vancouver bars must provide nearly three times more space for cars than for drinkers. Factor in the non-stall parts of a parking lot and the multiple is higher yet.

Vancouver’s “cabarets” that sell liquor must provide 1 for each 100 square feet (9.3 square metres). The city’s “neigbourhood grocery stores” need not provide any parking at all, but “neighbourhood pubs” must, by law, provide 1 per 200 square feet (18.6 square meters). Even designated “detoxification centres” are required to house 1 parking space per 300 square feet.

Vancouver’s parking laws seem almost directly at odds with British Columbia’s toughest-in-the-region alcohol-impaired driving enforcement. As of late 2010, police can impound vehicles and fine drivers who register a 0.05 blood alcohol level or higher, as compared to the usual criminal level of 0.08. Much to its credit, BC’s new enforcement provisions seem to be substantially reducing alcohol-related fatalities. Yet even so, drinking and driving is still killing more than 4 residents of BC each month, on average.

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