The high cost of ‘free’ parking: take two

The high cost of 'free' parking: take two

Albert Koehl reviews the U of T research report Cyclists, Bike Lanes and On Street Parking: Economic Impacts

Toronto recently decided to impose higher penalties on motorists who park their cars illegally on roads, particularly during rush hour restrictions. When it comes to cycling, however, the problem isn’t just illegally parked cars but the massive amount of public road space dedicated to legally parked cars instead of to bike lanes.  A new report by Daniel Arancibia of the University of Toronto’s Think & Do Tank provides additional ammunition for cycling advocates grappling with the long-standing misperception of many local business owners --- usually supported by municipal politicians --- that people in cars are valuable shoppers while people on bikes are … people on bikes.

Arancibia’s report, Cyclists, Bike Lanes and On-Street Parking: Economic Impacts, although not presenting new research, assembles and briefly summarizes an array of recent (and some not-so-recent) reports from major Canadian and U.S. cities confirming the value of cyclists to local retailers.  The review is timely and important, especially given the often-uncontested arguments that on-street car parking is a better use of public space than bike lanes for Main St. businesses. Underlying the author’s review is the desire to “understand how to most efficiently administer these spaces to best serve the local community, economically as well as socially and environmentally.”

Significantly, Arancibia highlights six independent reports from Toronto, New York City, Vancouver, Portland (Oregon), and San Fransisco showing that motorists account for only a small percentage of the business for downtown merchants. In five of the six studies motorists’ contribution ranged from 3% to 20% -- with the outlier at only 33%.

Thus, the vast majority of spending at local businesses came from pedestrians, cyclists and transit users.

These reports lead to an obvious question: If motorists represent such a minor contribution to local businesses then why do we allow cars to dominate public road space to the detriment of other users?

Arancibia usefully distinguishes the downtown reality compared to other areas of the city: although Canadians and Americans still predominantly drive to work, the numbers are dramatically different in dense urban cores: less that 15% of people in downtown Toronto and less than 5% of people in Manhattan drive to work.

The author acknowledges studies showing that on-street parking can have benefits for local businesses, including the provision of a buffer between pedestrians and moving motor vehicles. At the root of the competition between on-street parking and bike lanes, however, is the simply ignored question of which is a better use of public space. The unspoken assumption – and bias – of Canadian and U.S. culture has generally been that people don’t choose to ride bikes; they simply can’t afford cars. (My 8-year old nephew once suggested to his parents that “Uncle Albert must be poor because he doesn’t have a car”.) If 'cyclists don’t have money' then local merchants quite logically prefer that precious local road space be dedicated to cars.

The reality turns out to be far different. For starters, various studies cited by Arancibia show that cyclists spend more each month than motorists at local businesses – and are more loyal to local businesses. As well, findings in Toronto have shown that cyclists are actually more likely to be from higher income groups than their fellow citizens in cars. The point isn’t that cyclists should turn their noses up at other citizens but that merchants are ill-advised to turn their noses up at cyclists. It also makes sense, as noted by Arancibia, that if people aren’t spending all their money on cars and oil then they should have more money left to spend at local shops.

A number of cities have even identified the importance of attracting the so-called “creative class” by providing cycling infrastructure.

Several of the studies surveyed by Arancibia found that merchants tend to dramatically over-estimate the percentage of their business that comes from motorists. In the case of the two Bloor St. studies and another study in Vancouver, merchants over-estimated the contribution of motorists by 100%!

One question that Arancibia doesn’t clearly answer with study citations is whether replacing on-street parking with bike lanes is better for local business. This shortcoming, however, is quite likely the result of the dearth of examples available for study. The best he can do is to set out studies, including ones from New York City, showing that the addition of bike lanes was linked to increased economic activity and lower commercial vacancy rates, although in some cases the contribution of cycling couldn’t be separated from concurrent improvements to the pedestrian realm.

In any case, a standard that requires proof that bike lanes are a better use of public road space in terms of business revenues is too high. Even if replacing car parking with bike lanes has a neutral impact for local business the other community benefits --- less noise, cleaner air, improved safety, lower ghg emissions, and increased opportunities for exercise --- easily outweigh the inconvenience to motorists.

There is also an obvious equity or fairness issue. On Bloor St. in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, a 2009 study by the Clean Air Partnership showed that cyclists brought 12% of business to local merchants compared to 10% by motorists. Given these numbers it’s hard to devise a concept of fairness that justifies dedicating 0% of the road to cyclists and 100% to motorists?

As cycling rates continue to rise in Canada and the U.S. the fight for a fair share of the public roadway will simply become more intense. At the least, however, these fights should be informed by solid research. Arancibia’s review of studies on cycling and parking will further help to dispel outdated thinking that in the past could rarely be challenged by a readily available counterpoint.

You can get the full PDF report here.

Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founding member of Bells on Bloor. He recently served on the Ontario Chief Coroner’s expert panel on safety for active transportation.

Related on the dandyBLOG:

Mapping Biking in Toronto, research by The Toronto Cycling Think & Do Tank

The High Cost of Free Parking

Parking on Harbord safe, but bike lane design unknown

Best of Bike Spotting from our Safety issue

There is no 'war on the car'

Corralling business support for bike parking

dandyhorse Winter 2014 - staff picks for best winter riding gear

 

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