City failing to adapt to declining car use
Tien Sher, the developer behind the bold micro-lofts project, engaged in a bit of a battle with the City to reduce the amount of parking in the development. The 300 square foot lofts are designed to be as affordable as possible, and within walking distance of Gateway SkyTrain station, will likely appeal to young renters or first time homebuyers who are increasingly living an urban lifestyle. What’s fascinating about this project, and the City’s response, is its localized response to a fairly broad trend across North America right now.
We like to think of the good life as featuring a married couple with two kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. However, this ingrained image of the “American Dream” is quickly fading away, for any number of reasons: declining wages, increasing cost of living, rising price of oil, growing acceptance of alternative family structures, rising awareness of our carbon footprints. In its stead, Generation Y, people around their mid-twenties, are embracing an urban lifestyle. Perhaps replicating the lives of characters on Seinfeld and Friends, they are moving into the city centres, seeking out a diversity of activities within walking distance from their homes. They are ditching the car for the bike and bus. Instead of worrying about mowing the lawn, they dog walk or garden in the local park. Joy in life is no longer measured by the amount of things one owns, but by the unique experiences one collects with friends and family. This new dream is cheaper, greener, and happier.
The articles have been everywhere in the past few years. The Economist is talking about the decline of car ownership in America, particularly among teens. The Atlantic states that American downtowns have boomed in the past ten years, seeing huge population growth. The Sightline Institute has reported that gas consumption in Washington and Oregon is at its lowest level in 50 years.
Locally, the phenomenon is the same. The latest numbers from TransLink report that over the past three years, with a 6% increase in population, bicycle use is up 26% and transit use is up 17%, compared to only a 4% increase in driving. This shift is just as present in the reported declining gas tax revenues that are throwing off financial plans. A study released this summer by Metro Vancouver reported that condo and apartment buildings across the region have 18 to 35% more parking built than needed, a massive waste of space and money, with each underground stall costing nearly $40,000.
While this spatial shift back to urbanity appears to be driven partially by fiscal restraint due to the Great Recession, it is also being pushed by new desires and behaviour from Gen Y who are moving out and entering the workforce. All of this is occurring before the Boomers begin their mass retirement over the next twenty years, a phenomenon many expect will result in seniors downsizing and moving into smaller, more manageable homes (condos?) in walkable, compact areas (cities!).
The trend is clear. Just as evident is the pushback that entrenched ideologies are making towards this change. The parking debate is a perfect example. Upon hearing the statistics from the Metro Vancouver parking study, local politicians decried how detached from reality the numbers were – they simply couldn’t adjust their perception to actuality. Facts couldn’t change their minds. Reducing parking requirements, even though nearly 1/3 of spots aren’t being used, would be politically unfathomable.
The debate between Tien Sher and the Engineering Department shows that the bureaucracy needs to get a grip with reality too. Parking requirements outside the City Centre are 1.3 parking spaces to each one bedroom condo. Within the City Centre, due to SkyTrain access, they lowered them to 1 space per unit. With Tien Sher’s microlofts, the developer is attempting to essentially build all the 300 sq. ft. studio lofts without parking. Doing so would save each unit from a $40,000 parking cost and improve affordability. Not to mention the fact that the client this product will attract is unlikely to have a car anyway. For these people, it’s not a burden to be car-free, it’s a relief. To them, their dining room, their living room, their office is the city. They don’t need the private space because they prefer the communal, public spaces. They don’t need a car because they have access to transit, walkable areas, and bike lanes.
In the Tien Sher case, the City brought the ratio down to 0.75, higher than the developer’s desired 0.6. To get a little closer to meeting the City’s demands, the developer committed to one car share and its space, which gives the project a 5 parking space credit, leaving it 4 spaces short. In lieu of spaces, the City is demanding $10,000 per space, a cost that will inevitably fall on the back of buyers who don’t even need the space in the first place.
The City seems to believe that its 1 parking space per unit ratio is already low enough for downtown development. This explains why it is so averse to reducing them further, even for micro-lofts. While my observations are hardly scientific, only 2/3 of the parking spaces in my building – Concord’s Park Place – are used at the end of the night. And that’s being fairly liberal with my numbers. The parkade at CityPoint is used even less, and I’ve heard reports about a similar situation at D’Cor. Not surprisingly, these numbers correspond closely with the reports from Metro Vancouver.
There’s this ingrained notion in our region that people need a car to get around. Reality check folks: I moved to “downtown” Surrey and live in a condo right next to a SkyTrain station precisely so I don’t need to have a car. So why are you building me and my neighbours parking spaces that we don’t need? Because of entrenched ideology? That’s not good enough, especially in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
The truth is, our notion of the good life is changing, and quicker than many are prepared to acknowledged. I’d suspect that it will only accelerate as the Boomers retire. The City has proven itself fairly progressive in accepting Tien Sher’s microlofts proposal as a pilot project. That said, it shouldn’t need to wait to see the results of that development, as the proof is already ‘underground’ so to speak. People want an urban lifestyle. It’s time to start adjusting our regulations to fit with this new reality. And while we’re at it, let’s get building that Light Rail system that citizens will increasingly desire and use.