Creating Space: Get Serious About Toronto Cycling, Part I

In a speech given 9 October 2009 at the National Club in Toronto, Yvonne Bambrick, Executive Director, Toronto Cyclist Union, presented an idea to replace street parking on one side of an oft-biked city artery (Queen Street) with a two-way bike lane.

For those of us who drive, we can imagine the loss of several kilometers of street parking to mean longer searches by circling for on-street parking, more congestion, and further walks to our favorite restaurants and shops as we park ever farther away from our destination.

For those of us who bike, the idea sounds fair. During peak hours, each bike takes either 0.83 cars off our congested streets or one rider off our crowded subway, while each parking spot adds one more car. Sounds exciting and sensible. But realistically the ‘cars-first’ habit of operating in Toronto society makes this idea seem remote at first blush.

Fortunately, there is a way to replace several kilometers of street parking and make Bambrick’s bike lane idea work – all while being kinder to cars and business along Queen street – or other similar arterial. It is possible to have more and safer biking in Toronto while improving automobile access and reducing congestion all at the same time. To do this requires a relatively modest change – miniscule in comparison to Metrolinx’s 25-year, $50B Big Move or the City of Toronto’s Herculean target of an 80% reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In fact, such a modest move as I will describe below would contribute to both of these grander goals showing the world and ourselves that moving toward such changes is possible.

First, consider that there are more parking spots available than are publicly or freely accessible to visiting cars. This parking is in many hundreds of small segments (four to 20 spots) that may be privately owned by banks, shops, churches, service stations or is on-street one or two blocks off of the main arterial and is managed by ‘no parking’ signs, extremely limited availability, ‘one-hour free’ parking, being chained-off, or enforced by tire marking and ticketing. This ‘other’ parking produces little or no revenue for its owners or residents, generates a spillover enforcement problem and provides ‘free parking’ for those that know how to play the game. All parties except scofflaws and freeloaders lose in this scenario.

Private, dedicated-commercial and residential parking is managed this way for two reasons: (a) it is intended for the customers or employees of those businesses or for the residents of those streets, and (b) the cost in effort and equipment to rent those few spaces when they are not used for their primary purpose, using market pricing makes it infeasible to do so.

This second issue – management expense – is critical. I am told that in North America about 70% of all parking revenue is absorbed by infrastructure, enforcement and collection costs. Granted, some of this due to under-pricing, but some is also due to the sheer expense of the machinery and people required to take one or two dollars from you. Parking is painfully expensive to manage (and the transaction cost makes it painful to use!) - all of which helps keep underpriced, overcrowded street parking in place. A certain formula for non-livability, 20th century parking management is as physically inefficient as it is economically and socially inept.

This serves to ensure that there are very many spots or small lots that could be sold for short-term parking but are simply made unavailable because they are not profitable to manage and create a liability, loss or nuisance if used unmanaged.

It is possible, using new, anonymous, satellite-based, "smart meters" to manage those small parking areas in a way that protects the interests of visiting motorists, residents and business owners. Developed in Canada, these in-vehicle payment management systems require no curbside meters for parking and no 407-type gantries for road tolling. Such a system would be set up to reserve sufficient free parking access for customers and residents while charging market rates to non-customers and non-residents in replacement for the lost street parking.

Second, consider that the reason street-parking is often fully occupied for long stretches of each day and on each street is a supply-and-demand problem exacerbated by two, long-term, opposing municipal policies: constrain automotive infrastructure to reduce automotive use (see ex-Mayor Crombie’s comment in transcript) and keep on-street prices low to make sure street parking is affordable for visitors.

There are a lot of good reasons for both of these policies. But the unintended results include congestion, emissions (while circling), less room and less safety for bikes and less livability.

Making more market-priced parking available, both on-street and off-street, on existing pavement can:
  1. Benefit business both in attracting customers and in receiving payment for their unoccupied spots
  2. Make dedicated two-way bike lanes feasible without making parking less available
  3. Increase bike safety
  4. Provide new business for private and municipal parking operators to manage new parking inventory
  5. Improve the local funding base by keeping additional parking revenue in the community
  6. Provide income for churches and other charities that may participate.
  7. Provide a way to remove most costs from street parking operations.
  8. Reduce demand for sidewalk-crowding pay-and display machines
Parking management is one of the most underappreciated urban opportunities we have. Since 2002, it has been my goal to make it possible to charge on all (or many more) streets without curbside meter collection and enforcement, to provide MORE off-street parking by repurposing the private spots already built (i.e., without increasing land-use), by allowing these private lots to charge for use by non-customers. (Imagine a banking lot sign: 30 minutes free parking. For satellite meter users: 8 cents per minute after 30 minutes, 2 cents per minute after closing (5pm) and on weekends).

There is a dangerous tendency to set bikes against cars or drivers against transit users or even the CAA against Transportation Demand Management professionals. Such a Car-Wars mentality serves no one except unscrupulous news sellers. All modalities are appropriate and needed. We are missing only a balance. Addressing the combination of too little parking, underpriced-parking, wasted parking potential, and street-parking-at-the-expense-of-bicycle-access-and-safety is a place to start.

Next: Funding: Get Serious About Toronto Cycling, Part II


James D. Schwartz said...

This is an interesting suggestion Bern.

Though whenever I hear people argue that removing parking spaces will hurt businesses, I can't help but think of those bustling destinations that are closed off to automobiles. Anyone who has been to Prince Arthur street in Montreal, or Kensington market on Sundays knows that the simple removal of automobiles can actually help businesses by creating a unique atmosphere free of automobiles (unique in North America anyway).

Having said that, I think your solution is a very good one and would enable us to more efficiently share a limited resource (urban parking space). It would also vastly improve our downtown business districts - parked cars are an eye sore.

As a cycling proponent, I wish it was easier to convert parking lanes without providing an alternative to accommodate drivers, but unfortunately drivers have a strong voice in Toronto, so this is a good compromise.

Bern Grush said...

Thank you James. Removing parking spaces does not necessarily hurt business. It depends what and where you business is. My idea will HELP "most" businesses on such routes and on average will be a strong positive for business. Bike areas in Den Haag are drenched in retail businesses. I am not anti-car (although I am no longer drool over them). I simply believe you cannot win by taking something away without mitigating the loss.