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Traffic enters the Oak Street Bridge heading into Richmond from Vancouver, on Jan. 16, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart, a former environmental activist, is defending his decision to cast the tie-breaking vote against a key measure in the city’s climate-emergency action plan: a proposal to require permits for residential parking on every one of the city’s streets.

The proposal generated fierce backlash among many of the city’s car owners and prompted two days of emotional speeches to council before the vote late Wednesday night.

Council’s centre right opposed the plan. Left-wing councillors, who supported the permits, said Mr. Stewart’s deciding vote was driven by political calculations related to next year’s civic election.

“I’m committed to making the goals of our plan happen. Just the method was unfair,” Mr. Stewart said in defence of his vote. “This has to be done in an equitable way.”

The permit system would have required any resident who stored their car on any city street to pay for a $45 annual parking permit. And, starting the year after next, anyone who owned a high-polluting vehicle (such as an SUV or a pick-up truck) made in 2023 or later would have paid an annual surcharge as high as $1,000.

The plan would have made Vancouver the first city in recent years to require parking permits city-wide (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, introduced the concept in the 1950s, as did some other U.S. cities) and the first in North America to regulate parking explicitly to discourage fossil fuel use and lessen the climate impacts of cars.

Mr. Stewart was arrested for protesting the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion in 2018, shortly before he was elected mayor. On Thursday, he explained his vote against what the city called its Climate Emergency Parking Plan.

He said the $20-million city staff had hoped to raise each year with the parking permits can be found elsewhere, possibly through partnerships with other levels of government. The city had intended to use the money to pay for other climate measures, including planting trees, installing charging stations for electric cars, and redesigning bus lanes.

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Like many of those who objected to the permits, Mr. Stewart said the plan risked imposing a heavy penalty on low-income families, tradespeople and service workers, who might have incurred the $1,000 surcharge in future years as they began buying 2023 vehicles secondhand.

And, he said, there was a “high indication the public wasn’t for this.”

The city’s Talk Vancouver system, which allows residents to provide online feedback on city initiatives, collected a record-high 19,000 comments on the permit plan. Eighty per cent of respondents were opposed even to the relatively inexpensive $45 permit. The city said homeowners and car owners were significantly overrepresented in the responses, compared to the city’s actual demographics.

A poll conducted by the city showed that homeowners and car owners were, at most, 50 per cent in favour of the permits. The city’s renters, who account for about 50 per cent of its population, were 55 per cent in favour. And non-car-owners, who account for 25 per cent of the population, were 64 per cent in favour.

Climate advocates said Mr. Stewart needed to show leadership, no matter what the public surveys were telling him.

“I’m disappointed in his vote on this,” said OneCity Councillor Christine Boyle, who has been the most vocal advocate for the plan.

Mr. Stewart wobbled on a previous climate-action measure in June. He initially supported a staff recommendation to delay a requirement for all new homes to have environmentally friendly electric-powered heating and cooling systems. Then he changed his mind after hearing speakers at a council meeting say the city needed to take a leadership role in reducing household greenhouse emissions.

Ms. Boyle said she and others were able to convince the mayor to support the electric heating and cooling initiative. But they weren’t able persuade him this time.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr said she has been fielding calls since the vote from people who wonder if the Green Party should back the mayor in the next election. Mr. Stewart is an independent with no consistent bloc of support.

“His vote last night was definitely not green,” Ms. Carr said. She added that she couldn’t come up with any explanation for what the mayor did, except that he was concerned about the election. She was disappointed that he wouldn’t consider supporting amendments the Greens put forward to address some concerns about the plan, she said.

Gordon Price, a former city councillor who supported the city’s first-ever climate report, in 1990, noted that the vote doesn’t mean the parking-permit issue is dead. Change takes time, he said.

He recalled Vancouver’s first experiment with bike lanes in 1996. The project was cancelled after only a few days because of driver outrage. Today, there are two bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, a major entry point into the city’s downtown.

Michael Kodransky, the U.S. director for the New York-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, an urban-sustainability think tank, said making changes to car use in cities is difficult, because it’s something residents are very emotional about.

For a policy aimed at changing driver behaviour to be successful, he said, the public has to understand the benefits. And there has to be a leader willing to ride out the storm.

“There’s nothing that can take the place of political leadership sticking out their neck, saying ‘I know this is upsetting to you but there’s a long view on this,’” Mr. Kodransky said.

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