Frequently Asked Questions

"How do we know these changes won't overload on-street and public parking lots?"

This review is not happening in isolation. It is informed by a number of principles and is designed to work alongside several other initiatives and programs that, taken together, will offset any increased load on public parking facilities.

Scale matters

Our proposals distinguish between small-scale and large-scale development. In most of the inner urban area, large-scale developments such as mid-rise and high-rise buildings, large retailers and the like will still be required to provide parking to offset their impact on local supply.

Reduce demand for parking through pedestrian- and transit-supportive land use

By enabling small-scale development to happen without on-site parking, the goal is to allow the simultaneous but gradual increase in both residential and commercial densities, accommodating households who are choosing to locate in the urban area in order to avoid having to own vehicles, by putting residents and employees within walking distance of services, jobs and transit. Data from the Transportation Master Plan, Census and other sources suggest there is a significant amount of demand for housing without parking in centrally-located neighbourhoods. This initiative is intended to let the market better accommodate those people without cars, as well as the significant number of people who may currently own vehicles but may choose to forgo them if appropriate housing in an appropriate location were available.

Proper use of residential on-street parking permits

Residential on-street parking permit zones are established in central areas, allowing residents to purchase the use of street parking spaces without having to move vehicles during snowfalls. These permits are priced on a cost-recovery basis (largely to cover added snow removal costs) and the number of residential permits is limited to a certain proportion of the available spaces in an area, in order to ensure that on-street parking remains available for other users.

Some commenters have expressed the concern that builders or landowners might double-dip, saving the cost of providing on-site parking and then simply telling their tenants to get street permits, offloading parking demand onto the street. There are a limited number of on-street parking permits available in any zone, and while they should be equally available to occupants of new buildings and current residents, they are not intended to support this kind of offloading, and cannot do so in any sustained manner. To ensure transparency and fairness, we are establishing a new standard condition in site plan agreements that govern new buildings, to the effect that the owner must make it clear to buyers or tenants, through the purchase or lease agreement, that on-street parking is not guaranteed. This legally-binding requirement will reduce the temptation to offload parking demand, and will help ensure that the new parking rules serve their purpose: to primarily serve new residents who don't want a vehicle, not to serve the same number of cars on the public street.

Allow more efficient use of existing parking garages.

Currently, there are many parking spaces in the garages and structures of downtown buildings that go unused. This is because of a zoning rule that prevents such spaces from being used by anyone other than the occupants of the building. (In practice, it still happens even though it's not currently allowed by the Zoning By-law.)

This review proposes to change that rule in the inner-urban area to allow larger buildings with structured parking to lease surplus spaces to off-site users.

On-street and public parking to be regulated by appropriate and transparent pricing.

The Transportation Master Plan (TMP) adopted in 2013 recognizes a difference between public/on-street parking spaces and the private, on-site parking currently required in most of the City through the Zoning By-law. The TMP lays out the framework for managing public parking facilities.

"Public parking is a strategic tool for city building. By effectively managing its supply and price, the City can influence how people choose to travel and promote a behavioural shift from driving to walking, cycling and transit. By providing public parking, the needs of stores, services, institutions and tourism destinations where customers and visitors arrive in automobiles can be met in the most efficient manner. Public parking generally uses each parking space more efficiently than private (dedicated) parking because spaces are shared between users, and thus reduces the amount of urban land dedicated to the car." (Transportation Master Plan, page 89)

The policies and actions on this topic go on to direct that the balance of supply and demand for on-street parking and paid off-street facilities, including a target peak occupancy rate of 85% is supposed to be managed by pricing, regulation and enforcement. Local Area Parking Studies are the main data tool used to inform such measures. The appropriate pricing of parking facilities is in line with best practices for managing the supply-demand balance for parking facilities.

Some commenters have objected to the idea of having to pay for parking at all. But there is no such thing as free parking; the "free" parking available in some places still cost money to provide (buying land, engineering the surface, laying down drainage and asphalt, clearing and maintaining etc.) These costs get passed on to tenants and consumers through higher rents and prices for goods and services, and can't be avoided by choosing not to drive: you pay more for your goods whether you arrived on foot or in a car.

But when parking is explicitly paid for, users have a choice: they can arrive by car at peak times and pay for parking, or they can drive at off-peak times and pay less, or they can walk avoid the cost of parking.

"Won't these changes just push business out to suburban malls and big-box stores that offer ample parking?"

Firstly, it's worth underscoring that the proposals under consideration would not prevent downtown businesses from providing parking if they are able and if they so choose, or to limit how much parking they are allowed to provide. The proposed changes would simply remove the obligation--not the right--to provide a certain amount of on-site parking. Furthermore, in most of the study area, this exemption applies to small-scale development only; large-scale development such as high-rise buildings, large retailers etc. would still be required to provide parking.

The concern about the viability of downtown is well-taken. In fact this initiative is specifically intended to enable development in the inner urban area. The problem with the current minimum parking requirements downtown is that they often act to block a good development. This is because the space required for parking simply cannot be found on the small lots and existing street network that predominate downtown.

So the problem that comes up, again and again, is that an applicant approaches the City with a proposal to start a new business or build a small mixed-use building on a small existing urban lot, bringing more residents and services and jobs and tax base to an already pedestrian- and transit-supportive area. But the zoning by-law nonetheless requires them to provide a certain amount of parking. Since there's nowhere to put it on a small lot, this requirement effectively prohibits the development.

Downtowns face many challenges. But to the extent that minimum parking requirements in the zoning are a factor, they have exacerbated these problems by forcing dense, established urban areas with small lots to meet standards that can only be reasonably met on a very large site with cheap land. Our review is intended to remove that obstacle and allow urban sites to play to their strengths: as local retail, service and employment centres, well-served by transit and within easy walking distance of residents, employees and customers, and as dense residential sites allowing people to live where driving is much less necessary.

"Businesses see a direct connection between the availability of convenient parking and the success of their businesses. Parking minimums in the Zoning By-Law play an important role towards success within a business area, by requiring businesses to provide parking for their customers. Won't reducing parking requirements hurt these commercial areas?"

Nothing in this parking study prevents someone from including parking in their development if they want to. It just reduces eliminates the obligation to do so under the zoning under certain circumstances, particularly on inner-urban Mainstreets.

All other things being equal, a business with convenient parking has an advantage over a business that doesn't. But all other things are not equal, particularly when we're dealing with an established urban mainstreet with small lots, a built up neighbourhood and limited land available. Many such business areas are increasingly aware of how the unintended consequences of parking minimums claw back whatever advantage may be derived from such rules. These include:

  • New construction becomes difficult, and in many cases impossible. This in turn means that a finite supply of (mostly pre-WW2) building stock has to meet the demands of a growing population. (Old Ottawa's population has tripled since 1961 but its main streets retain almost exactly the same building stock as existed then.)
  • Minimum parking requirements force old (but grandfathered) buildings to stay in service long past their best-before date. A lot of that old building stock is imperfectly suited to current businesses' needs. The costs of maintenance, heating, cooling, upgrades to meet building code etc. put these businesses at a disadvantage relative to places that occupy spaces designed with modern needs in mind. Aside from the special case of heritage buildings, zoning needs to allow new construction that is in keeping with the character of the street, but that is built to modern requirements.
  • The cost of providing parking or getting variances poses a barrier to entry for small entrepreneurs and increases the cost of getting a business started.
  • Successful businesses that set up on mainstreets find it difficult or impossible to expand with a minimum parking requirement in place.
  • Mainstreet businesses can't compete with suburban sites for parking, no matter how much is required by the Zoning By-Law. Successful mainstreet businesses locate there because it offers what the mall can't match—their location and character, a pleasant pedestrian environment, diversity of small businesses, and the ability to get there easily and conveniently on foot, by bike or by transit. Parking is useful--but if parking is indeed the deal-breaker, mainstreets lost that fight around 1950. Required parking does little or nothing to fix a mainstreet's competitive weaknesses; it can only serve to grossly undermine its competitive strength.
  • The broader goal of our parking review is to make it easier to put housing and residents close to businesses and to put services and jobs closer to residents and employees—so more people can walk to shopping, work etc. and reducing the dependence on parking altogether.

"The cumulative impacts of reducing the parking requirements should be thoroughly explored. What will the effect be of permitting numerous small scale developments in the same area to not provide parking? On a one-off basis, they may seem manageable, but a number of such developments in a single area may result in a more dramatic impact with significant adverse effects."

The cumulative impact of many small developments is one of the main goals of this review.

There are cities that pose very good examples for what we would eventually like to achieve, where the urban area thrives even with little to no on-site parking. The sticking point is always "But we're not Montreal/Paris/San Francisco. How do we get from here to there?"

The way we get there is to encourage ongoing, gradual intensification at a small scale, so that every new development puts more services within walking distances of residents, more jobs within walking distance of employees, more customers within walking distance of businesses, and supports incremental increases in transit service. (At the same time, large-scale developments still have to provide parking, because a sudden increase of density may shock the surrounding parking ecosystem too quickly for it to adapt easily.) When this happens alongside improvements in transit infrastructure, over time the auto mode share goes down, and so does the need for parking.

What have you heard so far in response to the May 4th Discussion Paper?

You can take a look at the "As We Heard It" page to see the comments we've received. But broadly speaking, there are a few things we can say about the responses:

There's a wide range of views, but most commenters are cautiously supportive. We heard from people who are absolutely in favour of abolishing all minimum parking requirements citywide, and from people who feel just as strongly that we should not reduce parking minima at all. But most people are in the middle: they support the general idea of reducing parking requirements, with some caveats. Many commenters like the idea of exempting small-scale development from minimum parking rules, but not high-rise condos and other large developments. There is more support for reductions and exemptions on Traditional Mainstreets and near rapid-transit stations than elsewhere.

On-street parking needs to be managed properly. Many commenters noted that when on-street parking is too cheap and/or has too generous time limits, it encourages people to abuse it and causes problems with the whole system. Some suggested that three-hour limit zones be reduced to one-hour limit, to better align the use of those spaces with their intended purpose. Some noted that on-street parking should be primarily for visitors and customers of local businesses; others noted the need for an appropriate balance between permit zones for residents and short-term parking spaces for customers. Overall there was a recognition of the need for appropriate supply, pricing, regulation and rule enforcement for on-street parking. On-street parking is outside the scope of this zoning study (it's not something that's regulated by zoning), but we are constantly talking and coordinating with the City department that manages on-street parking.

We need better public transit if we expect people to forgo driving and parking. Several observers noted that public transit service in Ottawa is not yet at the level of cities like Toronto or Montreal, and in some suburban areas where Transit-Oriented Developments are foreseen, the level of service is not enough to support a successful TOD. Other commenters acknowledged that transit service and built form affect one another; the process of changing both is a long-term project, and they need to evolve together. Many of the commenters who voiced provisional support for reduced parking rates suggested they mean those areas where transit, walking and cycling are truly viable alternatives to driving.

Whatever we do, it has to be fair. Fairness is a running theme through a lot of our responses. People who support reducing parking minima observe that parking isn't free and somebody has to pay to build and maintain it. That cost is also paid by people who don't drive, so cyclists, pedestrians and transit users end up subsidizing drivers. At the other end of the spectrum, some commenters worried that if developers don't have to include parking (especially in big developments like high-rise condos) their projects will end up monopolizing the street parking supply that should be available to everyone. Still others urged us to be careful that in pursuing our planning goals, we do not create undue hardship for people who have no choice but to drive.

We have an aging population, and many seniors have trouble walking long distances and need to drive to get where they're going. If there's no parking, how are they going to get around?

We need to balance the needs of a wide variety of residents, and the needs of seniors form part of that equation. However, time and age affect us all differently and (like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates) you never really know what you're going to get. Some seniors do suffer ailments that limit their ability to walk. But others suffer from impaired vision, hearing or cognitive troubles that make them unable to drive a car, or at least to do so safely, even though they function well otherwise. And still others may have no such health problems, but low income in retirement makes owning a car an economic hardship.

We need to make sure everyone can get to where they need to be, and to remain independent for as long as they reasonably can, and this requires taking several parallel approaches. One of these is to make it easier for land uses to locate in such a way that most people (even a senior who can only walk a few blocks) can get there on foot or by wheelchair. Over the past fifty years, minimum parking requirements have made it hard for basic services like a greengrocer or a drugstore to locate on a compact, walkable street close to where people live. Reducing parking requirements is partly intended to remove that obstacle and enable the re-establishment a network of stores and services within walking distance of most urban residents.

In any case, someone who needs to access shops and services by car has plenty of options. Nearly everything built since the 1960's has been built around ample parking lots. It's the opposite need, the need for appropriate housing and services that are easily accessible to people who do not or cannot drive, that has been sidelined during those decades.

One of the options described in the Discussion Paper was to exempt only small-scale development from minimum parking requirements. What exactly do we mean by "small-scale?"

Non-residential land uses
For most commercial land uses (with one exception; see below) we are considering 500m2 (5500 square feet) gross floor area as the upper boundary for "small scale." This is big enough to accommodate the majority of businesses within the compact urban fabric that characterizes the inner-urban area; 95 peer cent of the businesses on Traditional Mainstreets in Ottawa are 500m2 or less. The businesses that are larger than 500m2, tend to be much larger--up to 9,000 m2 or more. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of business floor areas on Traditional Mainstreets.

This is a histogram that plots gross floor area of businesses on Traditional Mainstreets (the Y axis) against the percentile (the X axis.) It illustrates that 55% of businesses on Traditional Mainstreets are 150 square metres or less; about 80%  are 250 square metres or less; about 95% are 500 square metres or less. The curve roughly describes a hyperbola, with a shallow slope before about the ninety-third percentile, and a much steeper slope above the ninety-third percentile, reaching a maximum of 9100 square metres

Figure 1: Size distribution of businesses on Traditional Mainstreets. Source: Ottawa 2008 Retail Survey.

Retail food stores

Full-service grocery stores (as distinct from specialty food stores and convenience stores) tend to be much larger than other commercial uses, typically several thousand square metres (tens of thousands of square feet.) This makes them particularly difficult to establish in inner-urban neighbourhoods when parking is required by the zoning. At the same time, access to groceries is an important part of a complete neighbourhood, and is particularly important in enabling car-free households to locate there.

Based on the City of Ottawa's Retail Survey, the smallest supermarkets where a typical household could reasonablyexpect to fill most or all of their regular grocery needs, are somewhere between 500m2 and 1000m2. For that reason, we may consider exempting retail food stores up to 1000m2 from minimum parking requirements.

Examples of business floor areas

To give an idea of what these floor areas mean, Table 1 gives examples of some well-known Ottawa businesses and their approximate floor areas in square metres. (For measurements in square feet, one square metre equals 10.76 square feet; for a rough and easy calculation, just multiply by 10 to get the square feet.)

Business Floor Areas
Business Name Address Type Area (sq.m.)
Perfect Books 258 Elgin St. Retail store 120
Chez Lucien 137 Murray St. Bar 150
Feleena's Mexican Restaurant 742 Bank St. Restaurant 150
Sausage Kitchen 5 Byward Market Square Specialty food store 160
Silver Snail Comics 391 Bank St. Bookstore 170
Mags & Fags 254 Elgin St. Magazine store/newsstand 180
Saslove's Meat Market 1333 Wellington St. Butcher shop 190
Furniture Habitat 1191 Wellington St. Retail store 200
Bucklands Fine Clothing 722 Bank St. Retail store 200
Boushey's Fruit Market 348 Elgin St. Grocery store 230
Herb & Spice 375 Bank St. Specialty food store 230
Fosters Sports Centre Ltd 305 Bank St. Retail store 250
Elgin Street Diner 374 Elgin St. Restaurant 310
Mayfair Theatre 1074 Bank St. Movie theatre 330
Giant Tiger 98 George St. Retail store 380
Wallack's Art & Drafting Supplies 231 Bank St. Retail store 480
Al's Steak House & Seafood 327 Elgin St. Restaurant 490
Elgin Sports 108 Bank St. Retail store 500
St Vincent De Paul Stores 1273 Wellington St. Second-hand retail store 500
Steve's Music Store 308 Rideau St. Retail store 720
Kowloon Market 720 Somerset St. W Grocery store 720
ByTowne Cinema 325 Rideau St. Movie theatre 780
Loeb (Metro) Glebe 754 Bank St. Grocery store 980
Staples Business Depot 403 Bank St. Retail store 1,900
Your Independent Grocer (Hartman's) 296 Bank St. Grocery store 1,900
Mountain Equipment Co-op 366 Richmond Rd. Retail store 2,100
Chapter's 47 Rideau St. Retail store 2,600
Real Canadian Superstore 190 Richmond Rd. Grocery store 9,100
The Bay 50 Rideau St. Department store 30,000

Table 1: Selected businesses and floor areas. Source: Ottawa 2008 Retail Survey

Residential land uses and dwelling units in mixed-use buildings

For residential uses, small scale could mean one of several things, depending on the context.

The recent Mature Neighbourhoods By-law exempts permitted low-rise buildings with up to 12 dwelling units from minimum parking requirements. This is a useful threshold that might be applied to other residential zones that are within our study area but outside the Mature Neighborhoods area. (It should be noted that much of the study area does not allow 12-unit buildings anyway; the parking exemption does not and would not change this.)

On Traditional Mainstreets, a parking exemption might be more generous in order to support the intensification directed by the Official Plan. A parking exemption might apply to any dwelling unit on a Traditional Mainstreet, regardless of the number of units in the building, as long as the building is below a certain height (e.g. four or six storeys.) The exemption could apply only to mixed-use buildings (encouraging mixed use) or it could apply to residential use buildings as well (offering greater flexibility in areas where there is less market demand for commercial space.) The goal here is to enable the kind of intensification and mixed-use development along these corridors that supports transit and walking, but is too small to economically justify underground parking.