We’re proud to announce that we are now a partner of the Parking Reform Network, the world’s only organisation that’s fully dedicated to pursuing the vital issue of parking reform. We’re particularly proud to say that, while PRN has quite a few members and supporters from all over the world, we’re the first organisation from outside the US to become an official partner (with another two non-American organisations also joining in the last few weeks!).

You may have never thought about the impact that car parking has on housing affordability, climate change, economic equity or urban congestion - and if so, you’re not alone! When PRN Advisory Board member Professor Donald Shoup started his research on the effects of parking in the 1970s, he was shocked to discover almost no-one else had bothered to analyse the impact of parking, when in most American cities parking consumes more land than any other single type of land use. Shoup’s research over several decades culminated in the authoritative text, The High Cost of Free Parking, which has inspired many activists around the world (including myself!) to take up the issue of parking reform.

Parking sounds like a rather mundane topic, but once you start learning about how much parking has shaped our cities, you won’t be able to stop noticing it everywhere.

Parking is expensive to build, and wastes valuable land. It limits our ability to build the housing we desperately need, especially missing middle housing. It encourages and subsidises driving, while making it harder to use public and active transport. It creates urban heat islands, and makes our streets miserable to look at. Despite all this, Canberra’s planning regulations require developments to include parking, often more parking than people actually need!

How do parking mandates hurt housing affordability?

Here in the ACT, the Parking and Vehicular Access General Code (PDF download) sets out the parking requirements for each type of land use, depending on the zoning and the location. In 2017, a review of Canberra’s parking code (which was only released publicly when we requested it under the Freedom of Information Act) said that the ACT “has the most complicated parking code of any jurisdiction examined”. Every different land use has different parking requirements depending on location and zoning.

If you’re building a regular house in a residential zone, unless you’re building on a “compact block” (under 250 square metres), you must build two parking spaces. It doesn’t matter if the house is right next to a Rapid route bus stop that can get you straight to the city, or walking distance from amenities that most people would drive to. If you want to add a granny flat (a “secondary residence” in planning-speak), you need to provide a third parking space. This means you need to find room on your block to build another parking space, while also complying with all the other planning rules about green space and permeable surfaces that already make it hard to fit a granny flat in. It doesn’t matter if you’re building the granny flat for an elderly relative who has given up driving, or to rent out to students who are able to walk or bike to their uni or CIT campus and can’t afford a car - the government assumes that if you live in a granny flat, you need a car.

If you’re building an apartment block in a residential zone, you need to provide one parking space for each one-bedroom apartment, an average of 1.5 spaces per two-bedroom apartment, two spaces for three-bedroom or larger apartments, and one visitor space per four units. (The rules are a bit more relaxed for apartments built in commercial zones.) Note that most apartment buildings put their parking underground - sometimes across multiple storeys! - and building underground can get incredibly expensive. In Sydney, a single underground parking space can cost anywhere between $50,000 and $250,000 to build.

The rules aren’t absolute. If you’re brave, you can try to convince the planners in your development application that less parking is “adequate for current and future residents and visitors”. But even if the government’s planners (and Transport Canberra) are satisfied with your parking plan - which isn’t guaranteed at all! - you have to be prepared for an angry neighbour to appeal your project to the ACT Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which can cost tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend even if you win, and can send you right back to the drawing board if you lose.

A recent study by researchers at RMIT found that 20% of apartment households had too much parking, while 14% didn’t have enough parking - a problem that can’t be fixed without changing rules to allow parking spaces to be unbundled from individual apartments. Personally, I rent a two-bedroom unit with a friend of mine, and our unit happens to have two parking spaces. However, I don’t own a car, so we only have a single car between the two of us. This leaves one of our spaces empty and wasted (and while it might be possible to find someone who will rent the second space by a private arrangement, that has its own difficulties). I’m paying extra rent for a parking space that I have absolutely no use for!

If we get rid of parking minimums, we can build more medium-density housing, which will drive down housing prices for everyone across the board. People who don’t have a car (5.5% of Canberran households, according to the 2021 Census), including many of our most disadvantaged, will be able to find somewhere to live without having to pay for a parking space they won’t use. People with only one car (38.9% of Canberran households) will have more options for houses, townhouses and apartments with a smaller garage. It won’t mean that we suddenly get rid of all parking - new buildings will just be built with an amount of parking that actually makes sense for the people living there.

Around the world, governments are starting to realise how costly their parking mandates are. The Parking Reform Network’s Mandates Map tracks over 1,400 cities of all shapes and sizes (mostly in North America, which is car central!) where parking requirements are being reduced or eliminated. In New Zealand, parking requirements have been completely removed in all urban areas. Here in Australia, a few forward-thinking councils, like Sydney’s Waverley Council, have abolished minimums.

Of course, removing parking mandates is only one of several reforms that could help our city become more liveable. PRN’s website has a great list of introductory resources if you want to learn more about the different kinds of parking reforms they advocate for.

The Planning System Review isn’t ambitious enough

Right now, the ACT Government is rewriting our planning laws as part of the Planning System Review and Reform Project. This review involves rewriting the Territory Plan, including the parking code. The new Territory Plan will fit the framework of the new Planning Bill that is currently being considered in the Legislative Assembly, and will implement a few other reforms that the Government wants to pursue.

This is a great opportunity for the Government to take some bold action on parking. The Draft Territory Plan’s new parking provisions implement a few of the recommendations of the 2017 review, including simplifying and updating the parking provision rates, and imposing maximum parking requirements in the town centres. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of Canberra, the new parking rules will function very similarly to the current parking rules.

The Planning Minister has indicated that the new system will have a bit more flexibility for developers to ask for discretionary reductions in parking requirements, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in making the more radical changes we’d like to see. It’s important to remember that even under the current rules, developers can ask for reduced parking requirements - but it’s a difficult process, and while the new system promises to make that easier, we still suspect it will be impractical and proponents won’t want to risk their time and money trying.

Nevertheless, we’ve raised parking reform through the public consultation process on the new Territory Plan, and we’re going to keep doing this over the next few months as the new plan is finalised. The Missing Middle Canberra campaign, a partnership we launched earlier this year with 14 other community and industry organisations and over 200 individual Canberrans, calls for the parking requirements in all residential zones to be reduced to 1 per dwelling. This alone, while not completely removing parking minimums, would make a huge number of medium-density housing projects more viable, and would help the many Canberran families who have no cars or only one car to afford a home. Our submission on the draft Territory Plan goes further and calls for complete removal of parking minimums for residential dwellings in Canberra.

We’ve also met directly with government officials to talk about what is going on with parking policy and to make sure that our point of view is being considered.

What can I do to help?

Parking reform is critical to achieving our goals of a more liveable, sustainable and affordable Canberra. By partnering with PRN, we’re getting access to parking reform experts who have successfully fought for and implemented a whole range of parking reforms in all kinds of cities, both small and large. But we need your help too.

If this topic has piqued your interest, you can help us in the fight for a Canberra that’s less car-centric and has more housing for everyone. Over the rest of this year, we’ll be organising events, writing articles and making submissions in support of parking reform.

If you’re not already a Greater Canberra member, join us! If you’d like to help us develop and run our parking policy campaigns, send us an email and join our Discord server - we’re always looking for help.

You can also help the worldwide parking reform effort by joining the Parking Reform Network yourself - you’ll get access to PRN’s resources and networks, and you’ll be supporting an organisation that’s doing vital advocacy work on this neglected issue.

With your help, we can shift the debate and fix Canberra’s parking policy to make our city a more liveable, sustainable and affordable place!

(Photo: Bill Gemmell)