Free Parking is a Fertility Drug

SusanMAINBy Susan Chapelle
Published: June 11, 2016
AS THE world moves towards a less carbon reliant and more efficient future, the design and implementation of better transportation and congestion policy must be forefront in our decision-making. 
Noted by the Squamish BIA parking survey, downtown has a parking problem. Drivers clog the streets circling for parking access while 151 parking spaces on Cleveland remain occupied during peak hours. The world has found Squamish and it’s getting crowded. 
Parking infrastructure has long been a divisive argument among citizens. Despite a desire to chip away at climate change, Squamish is car reliant. We lack regional transportation, and sit on the cusp of affordable local transit options. In opposition to environmental goals, we demand parking be free, abundant and pole position. What if the problem in Squamish is not too little parking, but too many cars? Consider that free parking actually increases motor use. 
The United Nations predicts that by 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population will be urban. Population growth is happening at a faster rate in lower density areas for reasons of affordability and lifestyle. We need plans for growth, and ways to manage our land resources with efficiency and fairness. 
Parking is not a sexy political conversation. Merely discussing metered parking is political kryptonite. Promises of “free” often get politicians voted in. Valuing on-street parking spaces based on market values can mitigate poor air quality, reduce congestion, and encourage active transportation choices. The environmental impact of congestion affects everyone. Free parking contributes to pollution, accidents and congestion. When a street is congested, it is unpleasant. Road widening doesn’t increase flow, and building more spaces will never ensure everyone free parking. Willingness to consider active transit may. 
Cars are parked 95 per cent of the time. Drivers use cars as if parking comes at no expense. The result is congestion and higher housing costs due to less density. By some estimates, every dollar that a driver spends on their car, the public bears .50 cents in parking costs.Parking is a public resource, and has been paid for by the commons instead of the user. What if we spent parking revenue on education or health? 
Some, including myself, have argued for a centralized parking structure. This option costs over $8.56 million to build not including land acquisition, displaces tax-paying commerce, and people will still circle for free parking. Bylaw enforcement of two-hour parking by chalking is expensive. Weak enforcement invites abuse while strong enforcement discourages shoppers. 
There are 2,300 parking spaces in downtown Squamish. The complaint has been “not enough”. Congestion happens on one block of Cleveland Avenue, which, by all other global standards should be a place for interactive, human-scaled design, not maximizing cars. One solution is peak-period parking charges. These have been successfully piloted in cities all over North America. During congested periods, the charge for parking spaces increases. Ideal occupancy is 85 per cent. Higher turnover means more customers in shops and restaurants. Studies of the ‘park smart’ initiative showed that more shoppers were brought into the area increasing revenue to the shops. Meters have more enemies than friends, but the assumption people will choose differently because of pay parking is not true. A mall provides a different experience than a well designed downtown transformed by its vitality. 
Not unlike fossil fuel arguments, do we continue to increase car-centric infrastructure despite a future consisting of shared transit resources and driverless cars? With advents in technology, the parking industry has undergone massive changes; the ability to collect by licence plate, remote applications, solar-based meters, and the internet have allowed for many options to efficiently collect fees. 
Market charge for parking is one solution. Longer-term needs are better public transit, safe active transportation, increase in handicappedparking spaces, and human-scaled development. Pushing the status quo in politics can end you on the third rail. For the climate, policy must lead for behaviour to change.


  1. Judi says:

    The biggest complaint I have is with the parking spaces available for patients to attend doctors appointments. We used to have two main doctors offices in the downtown area many blocks apart. We have the same two main offices beside each other on the bottom of Cleaveland Ave. The parking lot for patients has disappeared, the Monday through Friday parking lot across from them is now crowded with the staff cars. On Saturday it is a public market, bringing in more people that need to park. When I am unwell or injured and have to see a doctor where do I park? I don’t qualify for a handicapped parking spot as it is hopefully a temporary condition but I am somewhat handicapped or I wouldn’t be seeking help from a doctor. I can’t believe that these two, one newly built and one newly renovated were allowed to give their patients no parking spots at all. When Diamond Head was in the old space at least we could park in the Chieftain Mall now where do we park? Was any consideration or thought given to this problem? I hope someone on the council will stand up for those of us that are aging and need help from their doctors, we can’t just jump on a bike because it is a greener alternative!

  2. Brad H says:

    Good article.

    The only fault I find is that Susan sets up an us vs. them proposition with her statement about drivers spending $1 and the public spending 50 cents. Drivers and the public are one in the same. You can’t subsidize yourself. And businesses, being taxpayers also, are also ‘public’. They are helping to pay for road infrastructure and should expect some benefit from it. I’ve no objection to road user fees. My experience growing up along Highway 400 in Ontario engendered a deep dislike of commuter culture and I would welcome anything that tamped it down. But I want transparency. I want to know that what I’m paying is going towards the intended use. I don’t want to double pay.

    At any rate, parking fees will not solve anything Downtown. I’ve lived here 17 years and volume really is an issue now. And we’re not helping the cause by letting developers off the hook for parking and taking parking spaces away in front of medical clinics to (sort of but not really) join two parks together. Transit? We’re just not big enough to support a system that could truly supplant the car.

    By all means, go for fees, but create more supply. Downtown needs it.

  3. David Lassmann says:

    The District’s goal is to make Squamish the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada. How our local government think that the visitors that would make this a reality would get here, by teleportation?