People vs. Cars : The Fight for City Space

Andrea Friedman is a graduate of York University’s Master’s in Urban Planning program and a former Sustainable Cities CIDA/IYIP intern. She is currently the Metropolitan Projects Coordinator at the Planning Institute of Colima (IPCo), an SCI Network member. Andrea believes in diverse, equitable cities designed for everyone.

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When you think about the world´s most famous and interesting cities, do you think about their parking lots? Obviously not! In Mexico, iconic colonial cities (ie. Guanajuato) have little parking. Instead, they are characterized by an abundance of public spaces, including plazas, pedestrian malls and parks. Do you want your city to be world-famous for its parking? Hopefully not.

At the Municipal Planning Institute of Colima (IPCo), we have been engaging in participatory planning consultations as part of a project to revitalize the downtown core of Colima. In these consultations, parking has been one of the most frequently mentioned problems:

• Residents who live downtown complain that there isn´t enough space to park their cars.

• Commuters note that the private parking lots are expensive and in poor condition.

• People who come downtown to shop and spend their free time comment that it’s difficult to find a parking spot in the street, and complain that they waste time searching for a space.


It’s no surprise that parking is one of the most frequently mentioned problems in Colima. In the past 20 years Mexican cities have seen the number of privately owned cars increase dramatically (in the Colima area, more than 9% annually). New suburbs and neighbourhoods are designed with only the private vehicle in mind. Meanwhile, the historic downtowns were designed in the period dominated by horse-drawn carriages, and few houses have their own garages. Narrow streets have little space to accommodate moving cars, parked cars, and sidewalks. As a result, cars have invaded areas originally designed for pedestrians and people.

In Colima, the majority of people (more than 60%) arrive downtown in their own cars. Upon their arrival, drivers circle blocks looking for free parking in narrow and congested streets. Often unsuccessful, they are forced to pay for a space in a private lot further from their destination, and walk the rest of the way in the heat of the city (which is regularly over 30˚C).

The most obvious solution to this problem is to create more parking, as requested by the majority of people in Colima. This option may offer a solution in the short-term, however, in the long-term, the growth of the supply of parking only creates more space for the ever-growing demand of cars, creating to a self-perpetuating cycle. For example, during the 1960s and 1970s, European cities began converting their old streets and plazas into parking lots, but could not meet growing demand. Some cities like Copenhagen and Venice learned that expanding the supply of parking only led to more vehicular congestion, and began to adopt policies to regulate the supply (and demand) of parking.

The expansion of parking is based on the idea that it should be easy to arrive downtown in your private vehicle, and that there should be a space for each car. Should this be the case? In historic downtown areas, we face a dilemma. If we construct more parking in the public realm, we lose more pedestrian and cyclist space. If we construct more parking lots, we lose the potential to generate employment and revenue downtown. Parking lots use the space that should be the most dense, valuable and important properties of a city. Where there could be a lot, there is little. Instead of a building or a park with diverse activities and street life, there is a pad of cement or asphalt, perhaps with one employee guarding it.

A progressive parking strategy can reduce problems of vehicular congestion, increase the number of people who use sustainable transport, and reduce the number of people who arrive downtown in their car. A complete strategy establishes specific hours for shipping and loading, includes specific permissions for residents, introduces paid parking as a method to alleviate congestion, and generates revenue to pay for improvements to the public realm.

Innovative cities like Copenhagen have implemented successful policies to reduce parking space downtown, which has decreased the number of cars downtown. The result has been an increase in the amount and quality of public space. Copenhagen has transformed its streets and parking lots into pedestrian walkways, bike lanes and public plazas. In 1990, it introduced a system of paid parking, and from 1995 to 2005, it reduced the number of parking space by 12%, from 3100 de 2720 spaces. In 2006 it made a drastic move to increase the cost of parking by 50%, and in three years, reduced vehicular traffic by 6%.

Obviously, these policies aren´t very popular at first. No one wants to pay more for a service they use every day. However, in the long-term, these strategies contribute to the overall success of a place. Copenhagen’s parking policy has revolutionized how people enjoy and spend time in their city. A progressive solution has the potential to change how people think about and interact with their surroundings, thereby contributing to the sustainability and livability of the city. It’s a win-win.


About sustainablecitiesnetwork

Sustainable Cities International is a registered not-for-profit organization based in Vancouver, Canada. Operating since 1993, the mission of Sustainable Cities is to catalyze action on urban sustainability with cities around the world. We work by connecting and mobilizing people through the process of co-creating. We facilitate a thriving, international network of cities that act as urban laboratories: adopting, testing and improving on innovations. Ideas are accelerated through sharing of experience and cities are making transformational change a reality
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