A War on Parking?

Toronto’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee plans to wrestle with the problem of congestion and illegal parking/stopping on downtown streets over the coming months.  Although there is a separate study of the core area, a more general problem is the occupancy of curb lanes by vehicles that should not be there:  parked cars and delivery vehicles.

That blocked curb lane is capacity free for the taking, but the “right to park” seems has been sacrosanct for decades.  A ticket here, a ticket there, but through infrequent enforcement and low fines, motorists, especially commercial ones, shrug off the cost.

In a report to be considered on January 4, 2012, city staff recommend a variety of actions that could fundamentally change the way Toronto uses its road space.

  1. Create new offences for parking, standing or stopping in prohibited areas during rush hour periods defined as 6:00 to 10:00 am and 3:00 to 7:00 pm.  The fine for these offences would be $150, and the amount would not be negotiable in court.  (This is in keeping with a new proposed city practice that establishes set fines a judge must impose for various municipal offences.)
  2. Increase the fine for stopping in a bike lane at any time to $150.
  3. Work with the Toronto Police Service to develop a co-ordinated enforcement strategy.

Current parking fines are $40, and for standing/stopping they are $60.

City staff argue that the problem is not a lack of regulation, but a lack of respect for traffic rules already in place.  Some locations could benefit from extending the “rush hour” beyond its current two-hour window, but scofflaws will still park where they should not and stronger incentives are required to deter them.

In the context of Toronto’s budget constraints, improved enforcement of existing laws is viewed as a potential financial drain.  Rigourous ticketing or, even better, towing, might reduce fine revenue to the point where city loses more money than it gains.  I am not making this up — that is actually the argument put forward by staff.  In effect, if we can’t make money by enforcing the laws, we shouldn’t try.  The benefit of freeing up road capacity is not considered at all.

Higher fines are attractive because they would be both a stronger deterrent and a better revenue source.  However, poor enforcement has always been a problem with Toronto’s traffic policing.  It is easier to send the parking squad out to ticket cars in the Entertainment District or in residential neighbourhoods than to enforce parking and stopping rules when and where traffic effects are severe.  If this attitude does not change, the higher fines will be of little benefit.

The report claims that:

Patrol of rush hour routes on all major arterial roads is standard practice through a highly visible uniform presence, and no statistical evidence suggests that the current level of enforcement is not appropriate.  However, an integrated approach in which current enforcement protocols are augmented with directed patrols including towing and public awareness campaigns to complement the new set fine establishment is a viable option to increase compliance.

Anyone who has seen major streets fouled by vehicles illegally occupying curb lanes knows well that the “current level of enforcement” is far from appropriate.  Indeed, if the current level were working, we would not be reading this report.  On one hand, the report appears to claim that everything is just fine today, but maybe we should try harder tomorrow.  This is hardly a call to action.

The report goes on to say that towing is “common practice”, but again routine observations suggest that the amount falls well below the level needed to strike fear into the hearts of motorists.

The biggest problem, of course, is with commercial vehicles.  A companion report proposes the creation of a new licence for commercial vehicles that would allow them to use some locations not otherwise available.  In effect, this would create a new class of loading space on streets for use only by commercial vehicles.  This class of space would not exist on any streets with bike lanes, and it would be available only outside of the rush hour periods.

That’s the gigantic loophole in the whole scheme.  Unless Toronto is prepared to go after the commercial users during rush hours with frequent ticketing and towing, the burden of this new scheme will fall on only a minority of drivers.  What will the average motorist think of being towed away and heavily fined when a Fedex truck blocks a major intersection with impunity?

The ban on loading areas where bike lanes exist creates two problems.  First, it will become a powerful new argument against the creation of such lanes in any areas with commercial uses that don’t have off-street parking.  Second, in locations explicitly designed to accommodate both loading and bike lanes (such as Roncesvalles Avenue), the ban would be nonsensical.

One option that was rejected was the use of a “Denver Boot” to lock a car in place.  Toronto Police take the position that “booting” would simply lock the traffic obstruction in place without achieving the goal of opening up the curb lane.  This is an odd stance considering the marginal effect that placing a ticket under the windshield wiper will have.  In either case, the goal is to deter people from parking illegally in the first place, and the stronger the penalty, the better the deterrent.  Either by booting or by towing, those who now regard tickets as part of their business expenses must face a much more severe penalty — the loss of their vehicle and its contents for a period of time.

Later in 2012, the Downtown Traffic Operational Study will begin to report on possible ways to improve traffic in the core including schemes such as one/two way options, longer periods for rush hour bans, turn restrictions and traffic signal changes.  This study does not have a webpage yet, and there is no information on its plans nor its public consultation efforts.

Enforcement of any new legal framework is essential, but the tone of the city’s report gives little hope that we would actually see a major change.  The debate at a very car-friendly Public Works Committee will be fascinating because the real issue here is between two sets of motorists.  Transit may benefit, but the larger question is to decide how roads will be used.

There is only so much road space.  We can use it to store vehicles or to move them.  If storage takes priority politically and economically, then congestion is an inevitable result.