Why parking spots in the GTA could get scarcer and pricier

By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 21, 2016
Ontario's Climate Change Plan includes reducing parking in the province.

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If you live in the GTA and drive to work, a number of changes are coming that could make parking more difficult, more expensive or both. The city of Toronto, the provincial government and regional transit agency Metrolinx are all looking at ways to serve a growing number of people in the region with less space devoted to car care, especially of the full-day variety.

For the province, reducing parking — and in turn, the number of people who decide to drive — is part of its recently released climate change strategy. For Metrolinx, it’s about accommodating a growing ridership without having to pave and paint massive new lots. And for Toronto, it’s about — what else? — money.

Ontario's Climate Change Action Plan includes a small item that may nevertheless substantially reshape the GTA’s development patterns: legislating away municipalities' power to require that new developments include a minimum number of parking spaces (calculated either per home or per square foot). The province’s first priority will be cities that have or are getting large new transit investments — which in effect means Ottawa and the municipalities of the Greater Golden Horseshoe.

“We know from the experience of other jurisdictions that phasing out minimum parking requirements encourages more car-sharing, more transit, more active transportation like cycling and walking,” Minister of Environment and Climate Change Glen Murray told TVO.org in an interview last week. As the province has phased coal-fired power out of its electricity system, he says it needs to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector more aggressively.

Municipalities have historically used parking minimums to ensure new developments don’t put pressure on street parking, but they’ve also been shown to reduce the cost of car ownership: UCLA economist Donald Shoup has estimated the effective subsidy to car owners from parking minimums is both large and deeply unfair. However, they’ve persisted in Ontario even in cases where they’re arguably unnecessary. Shoup’s research suggests this is largely because of ingrained views about planning. For example, staff were skeptical when a Toronto developer proposed a parking-free condo tower even though it sits on the Yonge-University subway line.

Murray argues that shifting the balance towards transit is an important tool for mitigating the impact of reduced parking: “Remember we’re also putting a lot of money into expanding LRT lines, subways, and GO service. We’re putting about $200 million into cycling infrastructure.”

The province also needs to prod more suburban areas — including parts of the region that are seeing new GO service — into adopting less sprawling forms of development. “Those areas that don’t have the infrastructure will be encouraged to build better spatially-organized neighbourhoods where you can walk to pick up a litre of milk instead of burning a litre of gasoline,” he says.

The province's investments in GO rail — expansions from Kitchener-Waterloo to Bowmanville, and more frequent service throughout the day —are also forcing GO’s parent agency, Metrolinx, to rethink how it handles parking. If Ontario’s plan works as hoped, GO rail ridership will increase. But GO already has a problem handling the volume of cars parked at its station lots, and paving more of them isn’t really an option.

“We are the largest provider of parking in the GTHA, which is not something we ever wanted,” Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins told TVO.org in an email. Metrolinx provides nearly 70,000 parking spaces across its 63 stations, but for the most part does not charge for parking (though drivers can reserve a limited number of spots for $90 a month). Toronto’s offers roughly half that number of spaces via Green P off-street parking: fewer than 35,000 spaces.

Leslie Woo, chief planning officer for Metrolinx, told TVO.org the agency has no immediate plans to start charging for parking, even though the Drummond Report recommended it in 2012. However, it is one of several measures Metrolinx is studying to “mitigate demand” (that is, discourage all-day parking.) To that end, Metrolinx is looking at other ways to entice people onto GO trains that don’t involve parking. “That means working with local municipalities for better transit, better walking and cycling access. We have some stations that don’t even have sidewalks,” says Woo. “In some areas of this region, that’s going to take a while.”

Woo notes that huge parking lots aren’t just environmentally destructive, they’re a customer service failure on their own terms: “It’s not convenient for our customers who have to walk long distances to and from their car. It just defeats the purpose in a number of ways.”

One problem Metrolinx will face is entrenched rider habit. There’s a possibility that, faced with expensive or simply unavailable parking at GO stations, commuters may try their luck driving into the city. (Downtown Toronto is still the destination for the majority of GO commuters.)

“It’s definitely on our mind,” says Woo. “That’s what we’re trying to address, for different reasons — including the fact that if someone decides not to get on the train, it’s not just bad for the environment and road congestion, it’s also a loss of revenue for us.”

Drivers who try to make their way into Toronto may find the costs of parking in Toronto (which already isn’t cheap) getting higher. Faced with persistent budget warnings by city staff, council is looking for ways to raise tax revenues that don't focus on residential property owners. Staff are likely to explore a tax on commercial parking lots, for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it could raise a lot of money: Council is considering new taxes, but few have the potential to raise anything like the $100-500 million or so staff says this one could net the city.

A parking tax has been promoted before: even the tax-phobic late Mayor Rob Ford briefly embraced a parking tax as a means of paying for the Scarborough subway extension he championed. The plan fell apart shortly thereafter, as Ford’s brother said that “All taxes are evil as far as I’m concerned” and political support at council unravelled. The Toronto Region Board of Trade also endorsed a parking levy in 2013, as did Metrolinx, when it was recommending taxes to the provincial government. The Liberal government balked, in part due to the perception the tax would be more difficult for the province to administer than alternatives revenue sources.

Current Mayor John Tory has also raised the possibility of selling off city-owned assets. Those could include the numerous Green P off-street lots, which are primarily clustered in the most expensive parts of the city. But here too there are potential minefields: Chicago privatized its parking authority in 2008, on terms so generous they’ve effectively made it harder for the city to roll out transit improvements, forcing the city to pay Wall Street for every parking space removed (even bus stops). Toronto city councillors are well aware of the Chicago experiment and are worried about repeating its results here.

Tory’s office told TVO.org this week in an emailed statement that he’s taken no position on a parking tax, but that it will be discussed at council’s executive committee meeting next week.

In the meantime, drivers who make their way into the city via the Queen Elizabeth Way or Hwy. 401 may need to start thinking about an exit strategy from their car-centred commute.

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