Alberta may have the reputation as the land of big bucks and diesel trucks, but lately in Calgary it's cooler to be cheap and small - at least when it comes to parking.
Drivers of some 435 small cars and motorcycles - or about 4 per cent of downtown commuters - have been enjoying a 25-per-cent discount on short-term parking as a "reward for a smaller environmental footprint," according to the Calgary Parking Authority.
Kristi Baron and her beloved Mini Cooper have been taking advantage of the perk through a cellphone account set up with the city.
"I love it," the communications specialist said. "I just dial in on my cellphone. It is the most convenient thing in the world."
Ms. Baron bought her Mini partly "because it's cute," but also because of the fuel efficiency. She said cities are smart to reward drivers of little cars for eco-conscious purchases.
Canada's energy capital is among a growing number of municipalities that offer eco-parking incentives.
The city of York in England gives cars that are less than 2.7 metres long at least 50 per cent off on some parking charges, and in London, drivers of electric cars can park free in some lots. In New York, three parking-lot operators in Manhattan are offering half-price parking for Smart fortwo cars, as does a parking-authority operator at the John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.
In Vancouver, some fuel-efficient vehicles are eligible for a 50-per-cent discount at certain EasyPark lots. And in Kelowna, B.C., drivers of hybrid gas-electric vehicles and fuel-efficient cars have been eligible for free downtown parking for more than three years as a kind of municipal thank-you for residents who are trying to do their part to reduce the impact of global warming.
About 300 vehicles are registered for the Eco-Pass at a potential revenue loss to the city of $15,000 a month, according to Stuart Evans, Kelowna's parking co-ordinator.
"If that number escalates where it becomes the absolute norm where everybody goes out and buys Smart cars and hybrids, it might be a bit of a financial impact to the city, so then we might have to revisit it," Mr. Evans said, "But for right now, I don't foresee any plans to discontinue the program."
In Calgary, where it costs between $1 and $5 an hour, depending on location, to park on the street or in a city-operated lot, officials figure the 25-per-cent discount is revenue neutral or potentially profitable, because it frees up more space for more vehicles to park downtown.
Since last summer, cars that are no more than 3.8 metres long - such as the Geo Metro, Suzuki Swift, Toyota Echo and Honda Insight - have been eligible for the break.
But don't bother trying to cheat.
"We have found a few people who have tried to beat the system," said Dale Fraser, general manager of the Calgary Parking Authority. "We have contacted them and indeed they have fairly paid for the reduced parking that they would have otherwise been granted and were somewhat embarrassed to be caught."
High-tech mobile metre maids that tour city streets snapping photos to monitor how much the owner of a parked vehicle has paid can also measure the length.
Despite the discount, Calgary still isn't a cheap place to park.
According to Colliers International, which conducts annual surveys on worldwide parking fees, Calgary is the priciest place in the country to park, at $428 a month. Montreal and Toronto were next most expensive at $290 a month.
In North America, only New York and Boston are more costly than Calgary.
Calgary's unenviable title - and recent increases to parking fees - have sparked outrage from drivers.
"We're often challenged with feedback on the high cost of parking," Mr. Fraser said, adding that was part of the impetus for offering a deal to drivers of small vehicles.
"We're really in the business of selling space," he said. "That's what parking is all about."
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