Londoners consummate love affair with free parking late at night

Oh London, your love affair with free parking continues. (see Media Release) Sure, when I returned last summer, I was swept-up in the euphoria of it all, and I joined your Facebook group. And when it comes to parking, I really do prefer that it occur on the street. And I still think ticketing was just over the top and was a punative, inefficient, small-town way to deal with this parking issue. But I’ve been thinking about things and I’ve had a slight change of mind.

I don’t mind that parking occurs overnight on streets – I support it and think cars ought to be parked in London’s plentiful road allowance. Streets are wide in London and the front-setbacks of houses are too, creating all-too-vast outside rooms, that lack the intimacy, particularly in winter, of a comfortable neighbourhood street. Parked cars also do service to the task of reducing vehicle speeds on neighbourhood streets.

However, I do have a condition that comes with my support of any kind of parking activity. After considering deeply the whole concept of parking and driving, and in particular free parking, speaking as a non-motorist (and you should read this with your non-driving mind, the part that you use when you’re in a park noticing the poor upkeep, or paying for a bag of milk and thinking about rising prices,) I can’t support free overnight parking in London. There. I said it.

Here’s my reasoning and let me again say, I’m not a big fan of ticketing but I’m an even bigger non-fan of the economic inefficiencies and unfairness that the mis-use of public commons (ie, those assets provided to everyone in kind) creates. We openly subsidize public transit – it’s very clearly stated in both fares charged to riders but also in our property taxes and other, very public documents. However, we have bundled and buried the costs of providing parking into all other forms of private activity. The parking you use at the Grocery Store isn’t free – it’s part of the cost of the bag of milk. A portion of your Tim Horton’s coffee pays for the ample parking space out front and the drive thru out back. Free parking reduces the direct cost of each trip, thereby encouraging even more driving and because early development requirements for parking provision (often copied from US standards) lacked statistical accuracy or local examples, this issue quickly grew beyond control.

Today, the size of development is  limited by the amount and cost of on-site (free) parking that must be provided according to By-law. Most residents battle new development on the basis of traffic impact and parking, arguing that more parking is the answer to less traffic. Rather, the answer to less traffic, is less parking and less free parking. Unlike most goods in our society, parking has become a socialist-based activity. Rather than allowing the Market to dictate the supply and demand of parking, we have required everyone to subsidize an inefficient system of mobility. Surface parking lots in downtown cores are inevitably a sign of failure and failed economic and land development policies. Yet in many Cities, the number of surface parking lots outnumbers the number of jobs and places to visit.

For more on this topic, if you’re really interested in some of the economic impacts of what I consider to be a legal underground economic activity, you should read Donald Shoup’s “The High Cost of Free Parking.” So revolutionary and enlightening was this book that Mr. Shoup, who is a transportation economist and professor at UCLA who has spawned an entire school of theorists self-described as Shoup-istas. (see a great interview with Donald Shoup by Streetfilms here.) While working in the road pricing space, had the pleasure of sharing a meal in Greenwich Village with members of New York City’s Transportation Alternatives, the Regional Planning Association and Professor Shoup, but I digress.

By Shoup’s estimate the total value of hidden subsidy for parking in the United States is, depending on the conservativeness of the approach (he uses low and lower ranges of statistics and data than is probably the reality) between 144 Billion and 350 Billion dollars annually. (Back of envelope, if Canada’s economy is around 1/10th the size of the US’s and generally, our development patterns and zoning requirements are the same, or population slightly more urban, then we spend between 14 Billion and 35 Billion dollars annually – or $1000.00 per every man, woman and child.) That’s a hidden $1000.00 tax for the benefit of driving and parking without anyone making it obvious – regardless of whether you own a car or not and regardless of how much you drive.

Now before you get self-righteous on me and start a MADD letter writing campaign to tell me that I support Drinking and Driving (I don’t) let me start my defense by saying that no charge for parking justifies risking any other human life. The fine for overnight parking in London was excessive but that does not morally justify or warrant further subsidization of, irresponsible personal choices.

We’ve zoned and grown our City on the basis and assumption of free parking and hence, our City essentially requires residents to own a car, if not two. Is it any wonder that our Public Transit system, the subsidy for which is openly debated in public while subsidies for private automobile use go unknown and unchecked, that our Public Transit system cannot effectively offer late-night party-goers with a reasonable alternative mode of transportation even on the two or three busiest nights of the week? Why do we even risk the drunk morning-after drive by encouraging people to leave their car downtown, if drunk driving is our chief concern?

Let’s have a responsible and open debate about this. Let’s invest in our own local study of parking subsidies so that we can perhaps start to place a value and seek an equilibrium between the value of mobility and the cost of providing the land, maintenance, the environmental impact and reduced accessibility to differing uses and the cost/benefit of improved public transit and resulting increase in property values and intensity of land-use.

There are interim steps that can be taken to reduce car ownership without making immediate a conversion to market-based and full-cost pricing of all transportation choices. These include cheaply priced Eco-Transit passes offered to new condominium buyers, commercial tenants and employees at both SME’s and larger employers. They include street-fronting developments that offer transit-oriented, mixed-use development opportunities, placing car infrastructure in the rear or underground and better pedestrian connections. The pilot for bike racks on buses was a failure because there was no built-in reliability for cyclists. By any measure such a pilot was doomed to fail. It’s time for all buses to have bike racks permanently.

As a potential way to provide service to Londoners who face 1-2 hour walks home from downtown, express bus service, late nights on weekends, to 1-2 locations en route to larger destinations, such as Westmount Mall, Whiteoaks Mall, Maisonville, etc., in the corners of the City, even at a premium price, could entice ridership and find latent demand. A cab from downtown London to Byron costs $30 to $40 dollars with tip. If the LTC offered a $5 Friday night express bus fare, at 30-minute intervals, surely people would use it. There are already taxi stands at the above locations where taxis could wait to take people to their final destination, or they riders could choose to walk the much shorter distance.

As you’ll note, I’ve not spoken directly about the Overnight Parking issue, which I think symbolizes how London is not seeing the forest for the trees when it comes to transportation or, to budgets, the cost of living and City life. Why not have a resident permit program (to subsidize street maintenance, cleaning some cars leak Oil after all, environmental impact, etc.) and perhaps an innovative downtown summer parking pass for those who find themselves constantly drunk in the core and unable to get home? If this were bundled with a transit pass, for the above-mentioned express bus service, both greater route planning and scheduling, together with environmental and economic benefits, could occur. Perhaps this pass could also give people a return ticket for the next day, to get their car home.

These are just two ideas for London, not too deeply considered and hence, should be taken with one grain of salt at least. Full costing should occur as well as a study of how effective, how well supported such programs might be. But one thing is sure, the waiving of any charge for parking on-street overnight, particularly for visitors/non-residents/bar patrons, just adds another layer of subsidy to the already overly subsidized activities of driving and parking and I already pay enough (without owning a car.)

In closing, my dear, I just hope that we can find a way to make our relationship more equal, more respectful of each other and hopefully, both of us will feel that we gain from this relationship over time, instead of me spending all my money on you and never getting much back for it. Thanks! (comments and responses always welcome.)


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