Public Works: Better Health Through Parking Meters
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Public Works: Better Health Through Parking Meters

Madrid's new "smart" meters encourage eco-friendly commuting.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Madrid doesn’t love your dirty old car. Sure, you can park it on city streets, but if you insist on having a gas-guzzler, you’ll have to pay more for the privilege. On July 1, the Spanish capital will institute “smart” parking meters that charge drivers based on their vehicle’s age and engine type. An electric car, for instance, will park for free, and a hybrid will merit a 20-per cent discount. But a serious polluter—say, one with an old-model diesel engine—will get you a 20-per cent rate increase. The new parking meters also vary the parking rates according to how busy the street is: parking on a roadway with few remaining spots could cost up to 20 per cent extra.

It’s all part of the city’s plan to reduce Madrid’s notoriously high levels of air pollution, the idea being that higher parking rates will encourage drivers to find alternative, more eco-friendly modes of transportation. And it’s the first system of its kind, according to City officials.

But does it belong in Toronto? Might we draft it as a soldier in a renewed War on the Car?

A recent report by Toronto’s medical officer of health, Dr. David McKeown, determined that motor vehicles are the single greatest source of the air pollution generated within our city and as such constitute a serious threat to health. Approximately 280 deaths and 1,090 hospitalizations per year in Toronto can be attributed to traffic pollution.

That’s a marked improvement from 2007, when Toronto Public Health reported that vehicle emissions caused 440 deaths and 1,700 hospitalizations each year. And last year, Ontario’s environment ministry declared that initiatives like Drive Clean emissions testing and industrial regulation had significantly reduced air pollution across the province from 2001 to 2011.

But given the volume of traffic out there on the roads of Toronto, there’s still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to our car dependency. The 2011 census revealed that the vast majority of working GTA residents—over 90 per cent in places like Newmarket, Pickering, and Milton—use a car, truck, or van for their daily commute. Predictably, the farther out from the city centre commuters live, the more likely they are to rely on a personal vehicle.

To alleviate the vehicle emission health issue, McKeown recommended that city council call on the premier to “urgently allocate funding to support further investment in municipal transit … to reduce air pollution emissions in Toronto and the [Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area].”

Mind you, the premier (whoever that ends up being) can send as much money as he or she wants—commuters will still have to be convinced to ditch their cars in favour of public transit. Which is why an approach like Madrid’s is so useful: it’s a logical way to discourage car use in the city, and far more reasonable than, say, an outright ban on 50 per cent of vehicles. It’s more than worth a shot. After all, when it comes to reducing air pollution, we all stand to gain, no matter what kind of car we drive.