One Hour Free Parking Could be Worth Millions to Toronto

Toronto needs a few things related to transportation. It needs more mass transit—either subway or light rail—I won’t choose sides. Toronto appears to need more parking judging by the fact that there is seldom a spot available when you want one. Or maybe it needs a different kind of parking management, because there are usually enough parking spaces in most circumstances, but they are priced to have some areas 100% full and cars waiting to take a spot and nearby areas nearly empty when they could be making money for the city.

And Toronto needs more money.

Now before you set this aside in disgust at the idea of more parking in a world that is already flooded with cars, many already parked, and the rest circling around the block looking for a spot, consider that there are not enough parking spaces in some areas because they are priced wrong and there are empty spots nearby, because they are signed wrong. I assert that if we could address this, there would suddenly be plenty of parking without creating any new parking spots or lots or garages—and Toronto could take a big bite out of its deficit.

My first target is One Hour Free Parking. There is far more of it than we use, and it could be sold if only we could manage it.

Not long ago, I decided to park my car near the Greenwood subway station and take the train downtown to a meeting. Since I might be longer than 3 hours, I decided not to risk using the pay-and-display meters on the main street, Danforth, so I drove to the next street north. One-hour parking. And the next one, too. So I went up one more and finally ended up parking about 0.5 km away from the station. Because I had cruised back and forth looking for free parking I had essentially driven an extra 1.5 km while passing well over a hundred, empty, one-hour-free spaces. I figured I needed to park about three hours and did not wish to risk a $30 citation. But, I got my free spot!

I would have been happy to pay for parking by the hour, one or two streets off of the main drag, as long as I would not be ticketed if I returned a bit later than planned. If it was a bit cheaper, as well, I’d be happier yet.

“So what”, you might think. “Go find a GreenP lot along the Danforth to use.” I could have done that, but the two nearby lots were installed just after this. (And think of the expense to the city of keeping precious corner parking lots on main thoroughfares which could be sold and developed into commercial or residential property that generated tax revenue while all of the empty one hour free parking could used to store parked (and paying!) vehicles do not. The City is paying a huge and double cost to provide undersubscribed One Hour Free Parking. Millions every year, I’d say.

One hour free parking has two other problems. The first is that it is very expensive to enforce. A parking officer has to pass by twice to confirm that someone is overstaying, that means that since one hour free parking is not much in demand, enforcement revenue is sporadic and will produce little or no net income for the city compared to the enforcement income available from meter violations from the pay-and-display machines on the heavily used main drag. The second problem is, because one-hour free parking is used on streets where there is somewhat less demand so that the city can hardly afford to use costly pay-and-display machines there, since revenue per machine would be very low.

There is another solution and that is to manage on street parking in these marginal areas where enforcement is expensive and where most people need more than one hour anyway with wireless in-car parking meters that hold all the pricing rules and payment instructions internally (to keep your location 100% private). These automatically detect parking in payable areas and generate a parking bill for monthly payment. This means Toronto could allow participating motorists to pay a little less (but not free) to park a block or two away from the major streets that use pay-and-display machines. Since these spots are away from the commercial retail storefronts, cars could park there longer then the current time limit, although they would continue to pay for the duration of their stay. Toronto could even grandfather one hour free parking for the first year or two, since many people will feel it reasonable that someone willing to walk a block or two be able to park free for a few minutes to run an errand. I disagree, but that hardly matters. Such a system with its pricing rules buried inside like a smartphone app is remarkably flexible.

And some of the money could be used for mass transit, and some of it could be used for local improvement of the streets in those residential areas.

But the most important part is that having a place to park is something motorists want. In fact, the four most important things for motorists, as shown in parking studies, are, in order: (1) finding a parking place easily, (2) not getting a ticket, (3) having a convenient way to pay, and (4) cost. The scheme I describe satisfies all four, and would make motorists very happy.  Hence this scheme, in Mayor Ford’s parlance, helps relieve the “war on cars”—all while helping with Toronto’s deficit.

What’s important about this is that it is neither pro- nor anti-car and that is because I am neither pro- nor anti-car. What I am observing is that the parking spaces that we do have are simply not well deployed they are underpriced in some places causing them to be over demanded. And right beside those places are unusable spots that could be slightly less in price so the net of it is that drivers could be happier, the city could have more money, and cars reduce circling around so that emissions are reduced. Best of all, this scheme requires no change in current rules—it can be entirely voluntary. Any driver not interested in parking this way can simply park as they do now. Refuseniks would be better off, because there would now be more spaces in the pay-and-display areas, while their bolder brethren are better off saving a buck by parking a block or two away. It is also the case that it is much easier to spot check a vehicle using this technology then it is to use the “tire marking” methods needed to enforce one hour free parking. This is a win win win win win scheme. It can’t get much better than that.

Or can it?

It turns out that the same technology can be used anywhere—curbside, lot, or garage. And that means that we can introduce graduated parking on street. Graduated parking means that instead of getting a ticket for staying past a time limit, the parking fee simply escalates slightly. This encourages turnover, gives the city money for every minute over the limit, reduces the need for enforcement and its attendant costs, and makes the entire experience of parking much more pleasant.

And if you do not like cars, look at it this way: if others are going to use cars anyway it makes sense to charge properly for parking, to reduce the number of cars that are circling around looking for parking, and to reduce the cost of enforcement. I estimate that the current city parking enforcement team in any city can manage 2 to 4 times more parking spots with this new technology. That means that we can have much more sensible parking policies without any layoffs and without new hires. Altogether I estimate that over a five-to seven year period it is possible to put two to four times the number of parking spots under this kind of “pay-as-you-park” management (any form of parking can be managed this way) and that this can be managed with the same staff complement. That would mean that we could at least quadruple net income from parking to our city. Since much of that comes from efficiencies, the burden on drivers is very small compared to the convenience and timesaving in finding a parking spot. Win win win win win.

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