Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Spent a solid chunk of time yesterday watching cars go by me in the middle of downtown Toronto -- probably the area of Canada best served by mass transit, and also the place with such heavy traffic that you'd avoid it at all costs if you didn't absolutely have to travel through it. In almost a half hour of watching, I saw a total of one car that had more than just the driver in it.

I'm actually at the point now where I'm laughing at people in Toronto who complain about gas prices. It's totally non-credible: if you were actually hurting, you'd stop doing stupid things. Driving to and from the downtown core in the middle of rush hour, in a car with only yourself, is a stupid thing.

I really despair at our ability to think our way out of this one. There's a total unwillingness to concede that the root of our problem is the automobile, and the ecosystem of services that it requires. (Parking, gas, etc.) For a truly distressing look at just one part of this, I just finished reading The High Price of Free Parking by David Shoup, which compellingly argues that free parking is the single biggest subsidy for North American drivers ever, estimating that it costs, in dollar terms, somewhere between $125-400 billion every year. The higher number was close to what America was spending on military expenditures before the Bush buildup.

Free parking subsidizes the cost of driving to the tune of something like $4 a gallon, if you want to think of it in fuel costs. Each car requires, on average, three or four parking spaces (one at home, one at work, and one or two at any given time for other destinations.) But because of course the car can only occupy one of these spaces at any time, the vast majority of space devoted to keeping cars is wasted year-round.

Free parking creates all sorts of perverse incentives, and people react to paying for parking even more perversely: notice the recent dust-up over the TTC eliminating free parking for metropass holders. The TTC will continue to provide subsidized parking to drivers (who, even after they start paying for this valuable service, will still only be paying half the cost) but it will now cost drivers to park. The response has been non-stop caterwauling, and obnoxious claims that if the TTC is going to take the draconian step of asking customers to pay for a service, they'll just drive their cars all the way downtown... where they'll pay vastly more than the TTC is currently proposing. And of course, downtown Toronto parking is also dramatically underpriced, leading to overuse of cars and the traffic congestion that ensues.

Shoup, in his book, estimates that a single downtown parking space costs no less than $20,000 to build, with substantial annual maintenance costs. In some locales, land costs can inflate that sum a great deal -- some estimates are that Tokyo parking spaces are worth more than $400,000. And yet when you ask people to pay -- and to pay the market price! -- for their parking, they scream like stuck pigs. I was doing some reporting last year on the very-successful Pedestrian Sundays in Kensington Market last year, and what was the most common complaint by merchants in Kensington, who literally work surrounded by walkable city and mass transit lines? Parking was too expensive.

A great deal of our public policy problems could be solved if we made the goal of decreasing the rate of car ownership in Canada. But we will never do that, because we cannot imagine a world where Ontario doesn't make cars, and Alberta doesn't make oil for cars, and where huge acreages aren't flattened and sterilized to make suburbs people drive to and from every day.


Mike said...

Nice post John and you hit upon why I think is the major problem with both the Green Shift and the Cons subsidies to oil and gas.

The best intensive to reducing the use of gas or to forcing people to ride-share is making gas expensive. By making them pay the full cost of the habit.

It is no secret that Europe is ahead of NA in reducing GHG and I suspect it is because the cost of fuel there is so expensive - in places nearly twice what we pay.

Sorry but all kinds of schemes to make cabron taxes revenue neutral or to ensure that Encana can ship oil up the Mackenzie to ensure we have cheap gas is the problem.

Until gas it $2 or $3 or $5 a litre, no one will stop driving, move to public transit or invest in alternatives.

Declan said...

Well said.

Mike - if you think that expensive oil and gas is the key to change (and I agree) then isn't a carbon tax the ideal policy?

Whether taxes on other items are reduced at the same time or not doesn't seem all that relevant (outside of the politics, that is) - the effect of the carbon tax will be to increase the price of gas.