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Currently a parking lot for transit commuters, this property at 50 Wilson Heights Blvd., slated to become a housing development, is photographed on Sept 1, 2021.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Donald Shoup, an urban planning professor at the University of California Los Angeles, published a brick of a book in 2005 called The High Cost of Free Parking. Work of such density is not usually widely read; Prof. Shoup’s book, however, became a rallying cry to change how we build our cities.

One of his main arguments was to end parking minimums, the rules that force residential and commercial developers to build a set number of off-street parking spaces. Over decades, this led to much more parking than necessary – and to a lot of wasted money. A single parking spot can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Parking minimums increased the price of everything, from housing to leasing a store.

But don’t we need parking? Yes, some – but as Prof. Shoup wrote: “There is no science to parking requirements. It’s closer to astrology.”

His ideas sparked a shift that, in recent years, has taken wider hold. Edmonton in 2020 was in the vanguard when it ended parking minimums citywide, after it was determined those minimums created a vast oversupply: 50 per cent more parking than needed. It’s the same everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, a study this year found there are 2.4 parking spots for each car.

Last week, one of the biggest reforms yet was at the finish line in Prof. Shoup’s home state. The state assembly and senate in California approved a bill that will eliminate most parking minimums within half a mile of a major transit stop in cities statewide. A primary aim is to spur the building of more affordable housing in a state with a long history of building far too little. The bill is expected to be signed into law soon by the governor.

When parking rules change, gains in housing can come quickly. San Diego in 2019 laid policy groundwork for the statewide shift, when the city ended parking minimums for housing near transit. Research last year showed that it propelled a sixfold growth in the construction of affordable housing units. Being freed from expensive parking made such developments more viable.

The partial end of parking minimums in California does not mean the end of parking. Developers can build the amount the market demands. It’s a big step forward in how our cities are planned – and unplanned. As Prof. Shoup has observed, cities are choked by cars because cities are by design built for, and subsidize, them.

The data in favour of change are clear.

A decade ago, Seattle eased parking rules in central areas served by transit. A study in 2020 found that developers built 18,000 fewer parking spots than they would have previously been forced to – and it saved an estimated US$537-million.

The numbers in Canada are equally striking. In Toronto as of 2016, almost 300,000 households in apartments or condos did not own a car. In new condos, one out of three parking spots goes unsold, according to the Residential Construction Council of Ontario.

Toronto has finally acted – after leaving parking rules unchanged since the mid-1980s. Last December, city council passed zoning changes that end most parking minimums in new developments. The city said it would help encourage walking, cycling and transit, and ease traffic congestion.

The push to further widen such changes continues. Ontario’s housing report earlier this year, which the Doug Ford government has mostly ignored, called for parking minimums to be removed, or at least reduced, provincewide. It’s part of an effort to build 1.5 million new homes over the next decade, about double the pace of recent construction. The report also called for buildings of up to 11 storeys, with no parking minimums, on streets served by transit – projects it said should require no special civic approval.

Prof. Shoup’s big accomplishment was putting a spotlight on how something seemingly benign – parking – affected cities in such deep and unseen ways. He also called for cities to charge fair market rates for street parking – and then reinvest that money on those streets. Think wider sidewalks and more trees.

This is all part of rethinking how we build our cities. It starts with recognizing how much space we devote to cars and that starts with the valuable space devoted to parking. We spend far too much money on it, and the result – by purposeful and flawed policy – is that we have way too much of it. It’s time to end parking minimums everywhere.