Toronto Mayor John Tory recently made big news. He didn't announce a new subway or a cut in taxes. No, he did something more revolutionary, something unheard of, something the likes of which the city had not seen in decades. The mayor of Toronto made front-page news because he instructed Toronto's law enforcement officials to enforce rush hour traffic by-laws.
Beginning on Jan. 5, police and parking enforcement officers implemented a zero-tolerance policy on the "hazard brigade" – drivers who use their blinkers as a cloak of invincibility to park illegally during rush hour. On that day alone, 592 tickets were issued and 76 cars were towed (which means a few hundred thousand others went unpunished). The goal is to reduce the rush-hour delays caused by those who believe it's their divine right to block traffic in order to pick up their dry cleaning or a grab a coffee.
"No matter how important your business may be," Tory told the media, "it cannot be carried on in a way that is contrary to the law and in a way that inconveniences thousands of other people."
And so drivers, who were used to being delayed by illegally parked vehicles, had the unique privilege of being delayed by tow trucks dragging away illegally parked vehicles.
The campaign marks a change in attitude. For decades, city officials – across Canada, not just in Toronto – have seen traffic violations as a revenue stream. Forget the pretense of enforcing the law. Just make money. It's easier and more lucrative for parking officers to stumble around slapping tickets on windshields than it is to go after drivers who violate no standing and no parking zones. A recent article in Le Journal de Montreal showed that police in that city appear to be pressured to meet daily ticket quotas that amount to around $9,600 per year.
Drivers aren't dumb and they realized they could ignore by-laws at will. Congestion has worsened. The revenue approach is doubly flawed because it only hurts poor- and middle-class drivers. The rich laugh off the expense. I've known a few money-infused motorists who owed thousands in parking fines and they wore them as a badge of honour. Nobody, however, can laugh off a trip to get a car out of the automobile impound. That burns no matter what your yearly income is.
Mayors around the country will be watching Tory's attempt at actually enforcing the law with rapt interest. Some have already experimented. In September, 2014, Edmonton traffic police cracked down on school zone infractions and issued 3,479 parking tickets and more than 400 speeding tickets. Experience shows it's impossible to ticket every driver who illegally mucks up rush hour. In 1989, Toronto police launched a rush-hour scofflaw blitz. A representative from the Metro traffic service unit told the Toronto Star, "As long as people break the law we're going to tag and tow until we get compliance. We will show no mercy."
But that's not the point. The zero-tolerance blitz is psychological warfare. It's designed to bolster the spirits of a city that, when it comes to transit, is beyond despondent, by demonstrating publicly that something is being done, if only on a symbolic level. The guilty (at least 76 a day) will suffer for their crimes. The thrill of seeing these drivers towed will be exquisite. The city should consider putting cameras on all traffic officers and broadcasting live feeds. Now how about giving the same treatment to people that block bike lanes?
Tow, tow, tow the jerks, gently down the street. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, till city streets are clean.
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