Wednesday, April 9, 2014

NIMBYism, density and parking

Whenever there is a project to increase dense developments in an area that is already built out, a movement usually springs up to try to block that project, a form of "Not In My Backyard" (NIMBY) reaction. There are many reasons put forward by the members of those movements, but what I wish to talk about here is parking.

This is particularly true of sectors that already are urbanized to some degree, where on-street parking is used by many residents. As on-street parking is generally free and shared on a "first come, first served" basis, the fear from many current residents is that the new residents will submerge the existing parking, making it harder for them to find a place to park their own cars. That is a major problem when on-street parking is relied on massively.

To compensate, NIMBYs will insist on strict minimum off-street parking for every development. The idea is that if we make sure there is enough new parking for the new residents, then they will not "invade" current parking spots. But that is not really a solution, as surface parking for dense developments reduce density significantly, which goes against the point of these developments. You can have underground garages, but these are quite expensive to build, around 30 000$ per spot on average, a cost bundled into the units' prices. This reduces affordability and makes people pay for parking whether they use it or not, providing an incentive to actually own a car.

So is there an alternative between building excessive amounts of parking, either reducing density or increasing the prices of projects, and building them as is and having cars overflow onto the streets, leading to neighborhood wars? Once again, Japan has come up with an innovative solution to that problem


The Japanese problem

As opposed to our New Urbanist friends, Japanese largely dislike on-street parking. It's important to point out how narrow most residential streets actually are, being around 5-6 meters only (16-20 feet), without sidewalks. So if there was a lot of cars parked on the street, it would quickly become unlivable. It's fine if there is a car parked temporarily on the curb once every block or so, but the usual unbroken lines of parked cars we see in many North American and European cities would be disastrous. Streets would have to become one-way and pedestrians and cyclists would find it hard to coexist with moving cars on the street.

When cars started becoming popular in Japan, the problem was quickly identified. Authorities had to find an answer to the problem. In North America, often the "solution" was to reduce sidewalks to nearly nothing, benefiting from wide streets built to allow hearses to make U-turns. In Europe, often the solution that authorities selected was to have sidewalks be extremely narrow and make streets one-way only to allow parking. Furthermore, minimum parking rules were adopted to avoid this problem... by creating another problem. But Japanese didn't have sidewalks to narrow and as they lacked space, minimum parking requirements were not the greatest idea ever.

What to do? What to do?...

They came up with an elegant solution, one that is quite simple in fact. There were some minimum parking rules implemented, but they are really minimal, half or a third of ours, if not less. But mandating an oversupply of parking through law wasn't the Japanese solution.

The Japanese solution... proof of parking

Basically, Japanese authorities decided that finding off-street parking places wasn't the government's responsibility, but the individual car owner's. The government just makes sure that the car owner does find one. They did this by requiring a proof of parking for people who want to register cars.

Let me rephrase that: in Japan, in order to get license plates for a car (which is necessary to use them on public streets and roads), you must prove that you have a place to park that car off the street.

What happens if people don't have this proof? Well, they essentially cannot use their car except off-road, so there's no point to buying one.

However, it's important to note that the point of this rule ISN'T to keep car ownership rates down by preventing people from buying them. If this was the objective, it failed miserably... there are about as many cars per capita in Japan as in Canada.

The point is to create a demand, and thus a market, for off-street parking.

People who want a car but don't have a place to park it on their land (if they own it) then need to find a place that will allow them to rent parking spots. If they find one, they simply have to pay the owner of that parking lot to rent a spot, the owner will then provide a proof of parking and they've solved the problem. Since there is money to be made by offering these parking places, some enterprising people will usually provide them, but at a cost depending on the cost of land and of building the parking lot. In rural areas, parking is very cheap, in big cities, it is very expensive and may dissuade people from owning cars.

This isn't punishing urban car drivers, it's just about having them pay directly for the cost of the parking for their car. In North America, we still pay for parking, it's just bundled in other prices so that we don't notice it, so parking is heavily subsidized.

The result

So the result of this system is that every car has its own off-street parking spot near the residence of its owner. As such, on-street parking, even if it's allowed, is not much used, since residents always have an off-street parking spot. Visitors can sometimes park in the street, but as visitors' cars are a tiny percentage of all cars present in residential areas, there's very few cars parked on the street in Japan, limiting the negative effects of on-street parked cars for street users.

This system works very well. It avoids creating an oversupply of parking or forbidding density. There is only as much parking available as car owners are willing to pay for. If there is a great demand for parking spots and that people are willing to pay a great deal for them, then parking lots or garages spring up. If there is too much parking and parking lot or garage owners can't justify owning that land for parking anymore, they sell to people who want to build houses or apartments instead.

There is no real reason why we couldn't import that system in North America. Most suburban residents have way too many parking spots as it is, they will have no problem at all providing proof of parking. For denser neighborhoods, this can be very useful.

It is even possible to integrate residential on-street parking in the system. For example, if there are 60 parking spots on a block, you can reserve 30 of them for residents only and issue 30 parking permits that are valid only for that block. And the people in excess of those 30 parking spots would have to find on-street or off-street parking elsewhere, which they can then use, making sure there are always places on that block for visitors.

With this system, you deprive anti-density NIMBYs of an argument. They no longer have to worry about keeping their parking, as long as they keep their permits, they can be reassured that they will always have a free parking spot for them, no matter how many people move in.


  1. The issue I tend to see here in Long Beach, California, is that NIMBYs believe that they have the right to free street parking, so they refuse to support metered or permit-only parking. This is more explicitly rent-seeking behavior, since they are essentially insisting that new residents subsidize the parking of existing residents… because they were there first.

    1. Effectively, once you have provided something for free, it is extremely hard to try to charge for it, or limit it. Yet that is what should be done, because there is only so much parking on the street, and if you increase the population through an increase in density, then you need to balance the demand for parking with the supply of it.

      This problem is one of the reasons why I'm really not keen on on-street parking to provide parking in residential areas.