The Cost of Free Parking
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The Cost of Free Parking


You may not have known that this snowy February day in Toronto is in fact a very special one: it’s Free Parking Day Eve, everybody! Yes: starting tomorrow at 7:00 a.m., a website that writes about cars is springing for your parking in “Green P” lots and garages all around downtown, all of which are managed by the City-owned Toronto Parking Authority. The press release advertising the festivities is full of references to statistics demonstrating how expensive parking in Toronto is.
But before we all load our families into our cars to go a-parkin’, let’s have a Free Parking Day homily.


It’s true that parking in Toronto is extremely expensive, but you know which city has it even worse? Calgary. Their median monthly rate for unreserved parking was $435.38 in 2010, according to a study conducted by Colliers. In Toronto, the median rate was $336.25. (For monthly reserved parking, meanwhile, Toronto’s median rates were the most expensive in Canada.)
And so the next time feeding your credit card to the Pay-and-Display meter starts to feel like being mugged by some jerk robot, just remember this handy aphorism: “It would probably be worse if you were in Calgary.”
Globally, in 2010, Toronto didn’t even rank in the top twenty-five most expensive cities to park in, by unreserved monthly rates.
Still, the Colliers study did find that Toronto’s rates grew at a far faster clip between 2009 and 2010 than Calgary’s, meaning we may not be cheaper than them for long. But that’s as it should be.
Cities, including this one, determine their parking rates by weighing different user concerns, of which price is only one. San Francisco—considered a global exemplar of enlightened parking policy because of their fantastically well-packaged, computer-managed pricing pilot, SFpark—released, in 2009, a market study of parking users in their downtown area. Among respondents, price was a major concern, but more important was availability. In other words, these respondents were saying that it didn’t matter to them how much parking cost, to a certain extent, as long as there were always empty spaces for them to use.
The reason it’s significant that cost, in that survey, was secondary to availability, is that the two things are interrelated. As cost goes up, so does availability, because high prices for parking make it less enticing. At a certain price point, people who can take transit downtown rather than driving their cars will take transit downtown rather than driving their cars, leaving downtown parking spots for those who, for whatever reason, have decided that they really need them.
The magic price point varies from city to city. It all depends on how many spaces there are, and how many people want to use them.
Another thing parking fees are good for is shoring up the City’s finances. Our municipal government is notoriously dependent upon unpredictable, one-time revenue sources to balance its budget each year. This was true under David Miller, and it remains true under Rob Ford. This week, council signed off on using about $370 million in windfall, surplus, and reserve funds to balance the 2011 operating budget, leaving 2012’s estimated $774 million budget gap to be filled from other, yet-to-be-determined sources. The Toronto Parking Authority remits a minimum of 75% of its net revenue to the City, annually and reliably. In 2010, that amounted to almost $56.5 million. The TPA also pays municipal property taxes on the off-street lots it runs.
There are some indications that not everybody is content with this arrangement. The Star obtained a bunch of documents relating to the Ford administration’s efforts to find “gravy” at City Hall, and those documents reportedly indicate that the mayor and his team may, at one point, have been considering selling off the TPA to a private investor as a way of quickly raising a lump sum of money. The Brothers Ford should take note of the fact that Chicago recently sold its parking meters to a private company, for $1.5 billion, and it hasn’t worked out so well. Three years later, the money from the sale is almost spent.
Toronto’s parking fees, administered by a public parking authority, are as elegant a tool for keeping the city running as any we have. They’re a user fee and a traffic management system, all in one. And so on the eve of this day of free parking, or any future one, Torontonians would do well to wonder if there is in, fact, any such thing.

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