Forced to Pay for ‘Free Parking’

When I moved to Halifax I chose to live in an apartment building on the edge of what is officially downtown. I liked this location because just about everything I needed on a day-to-day basis was a short walk or a quick bus ride away. Being a recent graduate with a not insignificant amount of student debt I decided that the extra cost of living downtown was easily worth avoiding all the costs that would come from owning a car. As a side benefit to the many drivers in this city, I also would not add to the already considerable demand for parking downtown.

Considering how easily I could live a car-free existence in my area I was quite surprised to learn that the zoning code had legally required my landlord to construct a parking space for every non-bachelor apartment in the building. Based on my own observations, most tenants in my building seem to be students, a group that isn’t known for high rates of car ownership and a high demand for parking. My building isn’t under some obscure portion of the zoning code either; an R-3 Zone actually has some of the lowest minimum parking requirements outside of downtown.

Now before I go any further let me make something clear: I’m not against people using parking spaces or cars, in fact if I was constructing an apartment building I would probably want to include some parking to make the building more attractive. Yet by mandating that developers include a minimum amount of parking governments distort the market and create some serious problems.

The first and most important issue is that parking increases the cost of housing. This study by the City of Portland gives you a rough idea of how much each additional parking space in a given building costs. A quick calculation for a 100 unit building (needing 100 underground parking spaces) is $5.5 million. Spread out over 25 years this comes out to roughly $185 extra per month per unit, which inevitably passed on to consumers through substantially higher rents. The chart below, while effective in demonstrating the high costs of underground parking, actually significantly underestimates the cost of surface parking as this entails a large opportunity cost in the form on forgone residential units (a flaw the study acknowledges).


Additionally, by artificially raising the cost of housing through parking minimums government’s open themselves to increased pressure to address housing affordability through less efficient methods such as rent control and publically funded housing complexes.

From a choice perspective, minimum parking regulations promote car-centred development over less car-intensive choices. By directly increasing the cost of building dense structures these rules incentive’s people to live farther away from city centres, where land is usually cheaper. Again this is not an anti-suburb argument; there is no problem with people choosing to live in suburban areas. What is problematic is implementing a set of regulations that promotes one type of development over another.

There is no reason to think that eliminating minimum parking regulations for residential buildings will result in a disappearance of parking spaces in apartment buildings. As Matt Yglesias points out, cable and internet hook-ups are pretty much universal features in apartment buildings across North America. This isn’t because it’s mandated in the building code, it’s because people want them! Just because some people want parking along with their apartment doesn’t mean we need the city to prescribe parking for everyone.

Parking minimums are by no means unique to Halifax and have been a part of most zoning codes for decades. While some cities are beginning to relax their minimum parking regulations in certain high density neighbourhoods, large-scale reform has been lacking. Minimum parking rules are only one of many examples of how over-zoned our cities are.  Setback requirements, population density limits, and lot-size requirements all distort the market and limit people’s ability make one of life’s most important decisions: where to live.

Eric Blake is a policy analyst at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies 


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