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A surface parking lot and multi-level parking garage are pictured at the Clarkson GO station in Mississaga, On.Fred Lum

It costs up to $40,000 to build one parking spot at a GO train station, and most often, commuters pay nothing to use it. The agency that runs the transit service says this can’t go on.

After expanding parking at a breakneck pace for years, Metrolinx is hoping to slash the number of rail passengers who drive alone to the station by 40 per cent. Parking will be discouraged through price, while access to stations for those coming by foot, transit and bike will be improved. Also, more residential density around stations will be encouraged.

The shift has been coming for years, but has been given new urgency by plans for a major boost in train service. The expansion is projected to spark a surge of ridership, a jump big enough that adding parking at the same rate would be too costly, both financially and environmentally.

The next decade will still include tens of thousands of additional parking spots – the agency fears changing course too quickly could alienate riders – including an announcement expected soon to add room for about 900 more vehicles at Aldershot station in Burlington. But the expansions will come at a markedly slower rate.

Whereas GO now has about one parking space for every 1.4 daily riders, by 2031 they hope to have many more riders, with a ratio of one space for every 2.5 customers.

It’s a delicate evolution that risks angering passengers, many of whom say that GO is already too expensive.

“GO charges an arm and a leg for the train already [and] usually we have to stand,” said Fammy Abdul-Azez, a provincial government employee, as she rushed to catch her morning train from Pickering. “The least they can do is offer us free parking.”

Seas of parking

For decades the standard GO rail business model was simple: build a station at a spot convenient to major roads and add free parking to attract passengers who might otherwise drive into Toronto.

For a long time the model was uncontroversial. Cheap land was plentiful, sprawling parking lots were a suburban norm and local transit agencies were too meagre to act as meaningful feeder systems for GO rail.

Over the decades GO, which is now overseen by Metrolinx, became one of the biggest parking providers in the country. There are roughly 70,000 spaces across the network, including 25,000 added in the last decade. A small number of spots are reserved for people who pay, but 94 per cent of the parking is free. This approach has persisted even as land values have gone up and driving around stations has become more frenetic.

There is extensive research showing that free parking encourages people to drive, leading to overdemand for spaces. While demand can be managed through price, Metrolinx has historically been leery of this approach. The result is those who drive to the train are subsidized by those who don’t, with everyone sharing the cost of providing parking.

As it stands now, 62 per cent of GO rail passengers heading into Toronto start their trip by driving to the station and parking there, with a further 15 per cent being dropped off by car. Only 8.5 per cent arrive at the station on transit and the same number arrive on foot. About 4.5 per cent carpool and just 1 per cent of GO rail passengers ride bicycles to their station.

Metrolinx chief planning officer Leslie Woo said this pattern can’t continue.

“We [analyzed] one station, we took Unionville, and if we kept expanding surface parking at the rate that we’ve been adding, that we would be adding riders, we’d need a site the size of Canada’s Wonderland,” she said.

“If we can figure out how to create the conditions, the right conditions, to make getting to our stations more attractive in other ways other than driving, I think there’s huge benefit. There’s just a general domino benefit.”

What to do

A decade ago the agency adopted a regional transportation plan aimed at changing how GO passengers access the stations, prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists and those who arrive by transit. Evidence of this shift has been thin in the years since, but the principles cropped up in a recent plan, signaling a renewed effort.

This is necessary in large part because the agency hopes to more than double its daily ridership by 2031 – from 100,000 now to between 225,000 and 250,000 – by running trains more frequently throughout the day, a plan called Regional Express Rail (RER).

Adding parking at the traditional rate would require another 80,000 spaces, costing billions at a time when the agency would rather put money into improving service. That much parking would also eat up swaths of land close to transit stations and encourage driving.

The simplest way to encourage people not to drive to GO stations is to have more of the passengers living nearby. Some of the new stations proposed under the RER plan are in urban areas, with ready-made clientele close at hand. And the area around other stations can densify, making GO more convenient for more people.

“Let’s turn them into active mobility hubs,” said Cherise Burda, the director of the City Building Institute at Ryerson University. “Looking at utilizing the station lands as communities and not just as parking lots, that’s where you’re going to get a lot more ridership.”

Proximity goes only so far, though. Metrolinx stats show that a lot of their passengers are quite close to their station already. Some 13 per cent of them travel less than one kilometre to a GO rail station, and another 19 per cent come between one and two kilometres. But only 18 per cent of passengers arrive by foot, transit or bicycle, meaning that a large number of people are making short drives to the station.

To encourage a change in habits, the agency is hoping to make walking, transit and cycling more attractive.

It’s a multifaceted approach that includes expanding bicycle infrastructure at stations, working with local bus providers to improve service and exploring carpooling and the on-demand transportation service often called micro-transit.

Charging for parking will also be part of it, though the agency seems likely to act gingerly here. GO fares have traditionally been based on a portion of the equivalent cost of driving. Increasing the cost by charging for parking threatens to convince some people simply to drive and many passengers view free parking as a given.

Ms. Woo argues that pricing parking is not a “silver bullet” for managing demand, raising concerns about equity if the cost were to rise too high. She acknowledged that charging for parking is “a lever” that the agency hasn’t traditionally used much.

“We have a new CEO who wants us to take a much more close business look at the business, and pricing is on the table,” she said, adding that part of this will be another look at the numbers to be sure just how much parking will be needed.

Change comes slowly

In the short run, Metrolinx expects to keep adding parking.

A 2016 Metrolinx report classified the Pickering station as an “emerging urban growth centre,” one where “parking expansion … should be discouraged.” Only two years earlier the agency opened a major new parking garage there, boosting capacity by 50 per cent. The five-storey structure cost about $47-million and had space for another 1,200 vehicles to park at the station, including a small number of charging stations for electric vehicles.

At other stations, ones which serve a geographically large catchment area, the agency believes that substantial amounts of parking will be needed into the future. And some current and planned GO stations are located in areas that are in flux, with parking needs that could evolve.

“Too little parking could discourage people from coming to the station, but too much parking is unnecessarily expensive and gets in the way of other uses like homes, shops, or offices,” notes a recent study by Smart Growth America, which found that the stations they examined in five U.S. cities all had more parking than they needed.

Also, how people get around is changing, making it hard to project future parking demand. One solution is to build modular units, allowing them to be moved if no longer needed, or design multistorey structures that can be converted to another use. Some of the parking demand may be accommodated in existing spaces that are near GO stations but not owned by Metrolinx.

Getting right the balance between good urban planning, customer convenience and value for money will be difficult for the agency. And the seriousness with which it is pursuing its parking-lite future has been called into question in Brampton.

Although that station has been identified by the agency as the type that should require little new parking, the agency has been acquiring multiple properties in the downtown area. Some of these buildings are slated for demolition. Asked whether buying urban real estate and tearing it down to build parking is at odds with the agency’s broader goals, Ms. Woo said that what is being done in that city should not be assumed to be permanent.

“Our goal is transit-oriented development, so obviously surface parking for all eternity is not how we envision Brampton, and it’s not how the citizens of Brampton envision Brampton downtown,” she said.

“It addresses an immediate need. But because we’ve purchased it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be converted to something that’s a higher and better use.”

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