STEAL THIS IDEA: Canadian City Passes Next-Gen Parking Reform

Photo: Stocksnap via Pixabay, CC
Photo: Stocksnap via Pixabay, CC

A small Canadian city just passed a package of progressive bike and car parking reforms rarely seen in a single North American community, and the policymakers behind it hope it will serve as a model for other micro-metros in the U.S.

On April 26, the city council of Kingston — yes, the one in Ontario, not the one in New York, or any of the other 44 US towns of the same name — signed off on a new zoning bylaw that will transform the community of 130,000 into an unexpected hotbed of progressive parking laws.

In addition to joining the quickly growing ranks of cities that have abolished parking minimums for all non-residential land uses — yes, that means no more massive parking lots at new big-box stores, at least not because the city forced developers to build them — the document also imposed aggressive new parking maximums on a range of commercial and residential developments, particularly large apartment buildings. (Accessible parking spaces are still mandated where necessary, of course.) International planning consultant and urbanist Twitter celebrity Brent Toderian, who partnered with the staff on the project, said it was “one of the first medium/smaller cities [he’s] aware of” to do both things at once.

Perhaps even more novel, though, is how the bylaw will provide parking for all the other vehicles in the city of Kingston: namely, bikes and micromobility vehicles of all sizes, as well as the shared cars that advocates hope will someday help make private automobile ownership obsolete.

Those policies include:

  • A new “cash-in-lieu” of parking program, which allows the handful of residential developers who would still be bound to build parking to direct that money towards a municipal-led car share system instead
  • A new parking minimum specifically for car-share vehicles at large developments that private vehicle owners can’t use
  • Minimum bike parking requirements at most non-residential developments, including stores, restaurants, offices, and hospitals, as well as larger apartment buildings
  • Minimum secure, weatherproof bike parking requirements at locations that are likely to be a riders’ last stop of the day
  • Special parking requirements for developments to help residents store larger bikes used to carry cargo or make cycling accessible to people with disabilities, as well as outlets to charge those bikes if they’re electrified

As remarkable as the new by-laws might be, Toderian stresses that there was nothing particularly remarkable about Kingston’s attitudes towards parking when the process of writing them began.

As in many North American cities, community leaders had vowed to address the climate crisis through policy action — but that didn’t mean everyone recognized how forcing developers to build car storage was setting back that goal, or the city’s other priorities.

“If you’re thinking this was easier in Kingston than in other cities, you’d be wrong,” Toderian said. “This conversation about the ‘p’ word was as hard here as it’s been in any other city I’ve seen. Why we succeeded, I think, is because we overtly connected the dots between this work and council’s stated priorities — and we did so somewhat mercilessly.”

That “merciless” approach included writing a 152-page manifesto about the “Power of Parking” to transform the conversation in the Kingston area, as well as a full-court press in the media to get average residents “talking about parking at the dinner table,” as Toderian puts it. Critically, this strategy allowed city officials to deliberately court controversy about tough topics, like parking maximums, and use it as an opportunity to address residents’ concerns — on the city’s terms.

“The fear piece was there for sure,” added Paige Agnew, commissioner of community services. “The geographic reaction to this was a little bit mixed; suburban areas were more, ‘don’t take away my car,’ or ‘the transit isn’t perfect right now, so don’t tell me I can’t have a second car. … But we just kept reminding people: we’re not saying you can’t drive a car. We’re saying we can’t allow the city to continue to be built in a manner inconsistent with our future aspirations.”

Toderian hopes Kingston’s tenacity and policies will serve as models to the roughly 300 small cities where a quarter of U.S. residents live — and that large cities will take notice, too.

“If you’re concerned about climate change, you have to be on board with transforming parking,” he said. “If you’re concerned about affordable housing, heritage preservation, you have to be on board. Just about every public interest a citizen or member could have is probably being held back by the way we’re doing parking, and not even with good reason. When it comes to parking minimums, the emperor has never had any clothes.”

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