Over the past week, since the TTC proposed, then approved, the elimination of free parking for Metropass holders, I have been amazed by the volume of comments on this blog, other sites and in feedback in the mainstream media on this subject.
Parking is something dear to the hearts of motorists, and taking away free parking seems to be on a par with kidnapping a firstborn child.
Several people commenting on my site have claimed that getting rid of free parking at TTC or at GO lots will drive people (sorry about that) into commuting all the way downtown even if they have to pay for parking. There is a long comment by Andrew currently at the end of the thread comparing the costs and time required for various types of trip (all car, part transit, paid and unpaid parking). The viewpoint embedded in his calculations mirrors that of many who write about the need for free parking.
There are several fundamental assumptions:
- The cost of the car is a sunk cost and has zero marginal value because the car is already owned as a necessity of suburban living.
- The combined cost of paid parking in central Toronto plus the extra cost of gas to get there is an offset against TTC fares plus paid parking at a TTC lot.
- All things being equal, time saving takes precedence, and someone with a car will drive all the way. Therefore, charging for parking runs counter to the goal of getting more people on transit and off of the highways.
First let’s look at the cost of owning a car. This is composed of a capital and debt service cost, plus ongoing running and maintenance. If someone’s commute is only slightly shortened by parking at a lot (say someone who drives from Newmarket or beyond to Finch Station versus downtown), then the mileage saving from parking is comparatively low. However, if they have a parking lot near home at, say, a GO station, then the mileage saving is considerable.
Reduced mileage does not just save on gas, it lowers maintenance costs and extends the life of the vehicle. In some cases, although this may be the exception, the nature of the vehicle use may entitle the owner to lower premiums.
This analysis argues for minimizing the portion of a trip made by car and brings us to the problem of a lifestyle dependent on a car for the local trip from home. Either transit service is poor, or other errands like child care, shopping, etc., require the car are an integral part of the trip. It also argues for pushing high-speed commuter services out as far and on as many corridors as possible to maximize coverage.
Some commuters will have this sort of requirement as part of their everyday trip (dropping off and picking up children, for example), but not everyone. To the degree that the need for a drive to a transit station can be reduced, this also will serve the goal of trip diversion from cars to transit. The question then becomes whether free parking or better local transit serves that end more cost-effectively.
Paid parking in central Toronto is available to some, but certainly not all commuters. There simply isn’t enough of it to serve all of the people who might use it even if this were the most attractive commuting option. Many surface lots are disappearing under construction. Just this morning I passed a location near the Toronto Sun building on King Street East where there are three buildings going up, and more sites with development proposal signs nearby. The land is far more valuable to its owners (who are not, by the way, subject to any sort of public-spirited motive or obligation to provide parking to commuters) as a building site. Availability of parking near someone’s work location is essential for this model to work, and availability in the core is dropping fast.
Time is important to everyone, transit riders included. Even I, the diehard transit advocate, know the difference between a fast ride on a subway line and the dawdling pace of a bus or streetcar sitting in mixed traffic compounded by the annoyance of being squashed into overcrowded vehicles. Who wouldn’t take an express, private trip if they could afford it?
When someone proposes a new or increased fee on car use, the responses are fast, angry and politically polarized. No politician is in a position to do anything about the price of gasoline, and the amounts of tax that have been proposed as a transit support (a dime a litre or less) are trivial compared with increases from market forces. Insurance costs are set by private markets too, and they reflect both the increasing congestion (and subsequent accidents) as well as the cost of repairing modern vehicles. This is the free market at work in the best tradition of conservative thinking.
Take away free parking, however, and that’s something we can all blame on those horrible lefties. This is a point at which opponents of schemes to charge for parking undermine their own cause. “It’s all the fault of David Miller and his NDP friends on Council” is a claim I read in many blogs. That may be true, but only because they happen to be the group in power today. Does anyone honestly expect that a Tory regime (in both senses of that phrase) would start building free parking lots all over the city?
One important direction from the “blue-ribbon panel” who reviewed Toronto’s finances was that the city should get more value out of its assets. One of those assets is the acres of parking lots it owns in prime locations. Their value, and who benefits from it, depends on how you look at them. They could be development sites sold for a one-time realization of capital, ongoing tax revenue and a source of ready customers for the TTC. That’s the sort of analysis one hears from hard-nosed business folk, not just the NDP rabble.
Even free parking in the suburbs around malls will start disappearing. That land is much more valuable for development, and mall owners know that if what they have to offer is sufficiently attractive to shoppers, then people will happily pay to park in their lots. Downtown malls like the Eaton Centre don’t need to offer free parking because (a) people want to go there no matter what and (b) most people get their via transit.
There will always be the issue of competition with the power centres in outer suburbia, but an invisible line separates the part of the city that is “urban” in the sense that space is too valuable for free parking to be an absolute right from the “suburban” areas where it is part of the landscape. That line will move steadily outward whether motorists like it or not, and it will do so for reasons of basic economics and business, not left-wing political conspiracy.
Those who park freely at Metropass lots constitute about one percent of transit ridership. Many will continue to pay because the economics for them still make sense, all things considered. The sky will not fall and the roads will not be jammed with drivers crawling past now-empty parking lots.
Meanwhile, on GO Transit, the proportion of customers who are not dependent on parking will continue to grow thanks to better local transit service and redevelopment near stations. Even car pooling changes the home-to-station trip into one that is more like transit because all those errands one might do in one’s own car don’t always fit into the carpool model. As GO expands its services, it cannot afford to proportionately increase parking, and this mode of accessing GO will drop as a proportion of the total ridership. When parking, at least at the inner parts of its network, becomes a relatively trivial part of its service offering, why should it continue? At what point is the cost of providing parking an unreasonable cross-subsidy from non-drivers who use transit systems?
Motorists have had a free ride for years because the cost of providing more capacity for their trips was built into the economic and political model dominating the GTA. “Free ride” is a relative term, however, because the costs were paid, but buried as a general public expense. The moment the marginal cost for new facilities rises beyond what governments are prepared to pay from available revenue, charges appear along with the sticker-shock of a free-to-paid model.
This discussion, along with the inevitable debates on road tolls, will probably be the most contentious part of “transit planning” in coming years.