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The City of Vancouver came close to passing an overnight street-parking fee designed to raise revenue for climate change solutions.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Last week the City of Vancouver came close to passing an overnight street-parking fee designed to raise revenue for climate change solutions. The fee sparked criticism about whether it was fair to those who do not already have off-street parking. It also raised the issue of how to implement an effective policy without the unintended consequence of paving over greenery with more driveways and garages.

Michael Geller, who is adjunct professor at the Simon Fraser University Centre for Sustainable Development, developer and urban planner, says the only people on the west side of the city who’d have cared about the fee would be those who are renting basement suites. The majority of west side homeowners have ample space for off-street parking.

He also believes that the fee would easily increase over time, making it even harder on those with lower incomes. A city staff person suggested the fee was only a starting point. Instead, says Mr. Geller, the way to get more cars off the streets is at the regional level, and through the registration and insurance of vehicles. Take aim at the type of cars people are driving, not the parking spaces, he says.

“I think people will move to Burnaby or North Van or New Westminster to avoid this tax. The reason I say that is I don’t know about you, but I find most people are incredibly irrational when it comes to parking.

“I don’t want to suggest that we shouldn’t be doing everything we can to discourage people from driving gas guzzlers, but you do have to provide the alternatives—whether it’s improved transit, facilities for electric plug-in vehicles or adequate car-share arrangements.”

He is concerned that by pushing cars out of public parking spaces we could undo some of the progress the city has already made, such as building infill housing instead of garages. Parking spaces could become a selling feature. And people could start paving over gardens like they’ve done in Toronto, where sections of the city are charged for street parking. The idea behind the overnight fee included an estimated $60-million in revenue that would go toward street improvements and the installation of at least 500 vehicle-charging stations. But Mr. Geller questions the effectiveness of the policy in actually reducing emissions.

“Part of the rationale for reduced parking is the expectation that people will use public transit or car share. We are all operating on that premise.

“I think the notion was to get them off the road literally to the extent that that’s a euphemism for they will start taking public transit, or they will start cycling, they will stop owning cars—when in fact, it may well be they are literally just taking them off the roads and onto the front lawns, or into the backyards. Where we have lanes, people would simply just pave a larger part of the backyard.

“And it also has inverse impacts on storm water management. And that’s the key thing for me. At a time when we are trying to increase the permeable surfaces, we will be starting to pave. It’s simply inconsistent with what we should be doing, which is, we should be tearing up the pavement and planting.”

Mayor Kennedy Stewart decided the tiebreaker when he voted against the $45 a year fee, citing the lack of equitability of such a policy. Many have also argued against the policy for similar reasons, because by charging those who have no choice but to park on the street, the city would unfairly target many renters over homeowners who have land on which to store their cars. There’s the argument that it’s missing its mark, since wealthier people wouldn’t get hit with the fee.

For example, although Shaughnessy is central and an easy bus ride to downtown, 65 per cent of commuters who live there use their car as the principal mode of transportation to get to work, according to Statistics Canada data compiled by Andy Yan, director for Simon Fraser University’s City Program.

The lowest vehicle users are neighbourhoods with a high population of renters such as Kitsilano (43 per cent), Grandview-Woodland (41 per cent), Mount Pleasant (39 per cent), Fairview (38 per cent), downtown (30 per cent), Strathcona (29 per cent) and the West End (25 per cent).

In numbers, the biggest group of car-dependent workers reside in neighbourhoods in the east and southeast regions of the city. Vehicle use is related to the type of work, with 77 per cent of work commuters in construction, 66 per cent in transportation and warehousing, 67 per cent in manufacturing and 66 per cent in wholesale trade. Owing to the type of work, those workers would have difficulty walking, cycling or using transit to get to work.

As well, Mr. Yan says the City’s promises of improved infrastructure that would be generated revenues from the fee didn’t define the areas that would receive benefits.

Vehicle use is related to the type of work a person does, with 77 per cent of work commuters in construction, 66 per cent in transportation and warehousing, 67 per cent in manufacturing and 66 per cent in wholesale trade.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

“This kind of taxation is inevitable, but it’s a struggle to figure out how to progressively establish it for workers who have constraints like type of work, type of residence and work location and schedule,” says Mr. Yan. “Policies have to be transparent, accountable and effective while providing options for behaviour change at a geographic scale that matters.

“The policy view from city hall can be very different from the lived experiences of the workers in these neighbourhoods.”

The city council vote was 5-6, which showed a strong desire for some kind of fee and the likelihood that the issue will come up at council again one day. No one questions that measures are needed to reduce congestion and carbon emissions (transportation is responsible for about 40 per cent of emissions, according to the city).

Although the initial fee was low, and even lower for those earning low incomes ($5 a year), the policy needs work, says University of California at San Diego urban studies professor Dr. Lawrence Frank, who studies the effects of walkability on sustainability and health, and design and sprawl. Dr. Frank, who until recently lived in Vancouver, is also a research affiliate professor at the University of B.C.’s School of Population and Public Health.

He called the parking fee well intentioned and admirable, but also “awkward.”

“The problem is what the mayor identified … the people that get off the hook because they are rich, because they have a garage or a driveway.

“I think it’s a good strategy. You just need to make it fair, with the tools the city controls. They should come back with a mechanism to address this inequity with a tool they control through the property taxation process so it’s equitably applied.”

Dr. Frank says mobility pricing, in the form of electronic tolls for entering certain areas at certain times, is a better way to disincentivize unnecessary car use. A year ago, city council voted in favour of considering mobility pricing, also known as transport pricing, as part of its climate emergency action plan.

“Obviously the best is mobility pricing. That’s what we should be doing, is implementing mobility pricing where you price the use of the transportation system based on the level of demand, and use the money to underwrite transit.

“But in the absence of getting political support for that, a low hanging fruit for the city is ‘let’s tax the city for parking on our streets.’ It is interesting it got that close. I just think the inequity of those that can afford to park off-street is problematic, but maybe there would have to be some way to address that inequity. Every policy has problems with it. There aren’t many perfect ones.”

Mobility pricing also has problems with unfairness, however, there are ways to make the cost of it geared to income level, he says.

Dr. Frank says he’s been studying municipalities within Metro Vancouver for their walkability. He says that funds for transit should go to those municipalities that have high walkability scores because of successful green policies.

“Over time we’ve been quantifying how communities around the Vancouver metro area are changing, becoming more or less walkable, with more green space. The concept is to track performance at the local level so communities that are getting more walkable should be rewarded … the concept is simple: invest in transit where local governments are providing transit-supported land use. Measure it, like a report card.”

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