Painful Truth: To get to a public transit utopia, stop subsidizing parking

We subsidize car ownership. What if we stopped?

There’s a lot of talk this election about transit, carbon dioxide emissions, carbon taxes, road infrastructure, and the general mess we find ourselves in when it comes to getting around.

One thing we don’t talk about much: how much our governments, at all levels but particularly local, subsidize the use of private cars.

I think we should stop doing that. Immediately.

I know some folks (who haven’t tossed the paper into the birdcage already) are wondering what I’m talking about. Aren’t cars taxed and levied? At purchase, of course, but also through insurance at ICBC and again every time we fill up? Even Hydro payments go to a Crown Corporation, if you have an electric vehicle.

Yes. But the amount we pay directly in taxes doesn’t begin to cover the hidden costs we all pay to live in a society dominated by private vehicles.

Start with the basics: roads. Built by governments, paid for by taxes at the municipal (local roads) and provincial and federal (your big highways and new bridges and so forth). Without that vast road network, you can’t get around in a car at all.

Obvious, right?

But then it gets less obvious.

What is the biggest subsidy that you pay for, but which is completely invisible?

Parking.

Every time you pull into a parking space, whether it’s at a store, on the side of the street, or into your own garage or driveway, that space was mandated by a government regulation or is directly paid for and created by tax dollars.

Here in Langley Township, there are strict regs for how many parking spaces even private homes get. It’s two spaces minimum for a detached home, slightly fewer for condos. The number of visitor parking spaces in condos is also mandated by regulations, of course!

That means that the cost of building garages and parking stalls is baked into the cost of every home in Metro Vancouver. You’re paying a parking premium every time you send in a cheque for your mortgage or rent. You pay a little premium for every litre of milk you buy, even the cost of your library late fees and a rec centre pass has to take into account the cost of land and materials and repairs needed for the vast parking lots we build around every public structure and store.

Why is there on street parking in Langley City’s downtown? Because the City maintains the parking, paves that edge of the street, paints the lines. Residents and merchants pay for it indirectly through property taxes.

If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend getting into the sky above Langley some time, via airplane or balloon. Look down, and you notice that the parking lots of commercial buildings are vastly larger than the actual stores themselves. Because cars are huge, hulking things that need lots of space, even though most of the time they just sit around doing nothing. We find cars convenient, so we built our entire environment to suit them.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was in Metro Vancouver recently to promise money for a wider crossing at the Massey Tunnel into Richmond. Wider roads equal less congestion, Scheer said, although of course we know this is bunk. More roads get filled up in a few short years, as they induce more people to drive, which congest the roads, which results in the demand for wider highways, and so on ad infinitum.

Trapped as Metro Vancouver is between mountains, water, and an international border, we can’t keep playing this game much longer. Even with electrified vehicles slashing emissions, we will find ourselves gridlocked again if we don’t choose a different path.

We could fix this problem once and for all, if we follow my completely insane, would-never-get-anyone-elected, three-point plan.

We’re going to have to keep a lot of plates spinning in this one, because we have to do all three things at once, over the course of about a decade:

• End parking regulations for all types of new developments, and allow existing parking lots to be redeveloped where possible

• Massively increase transit service, doubling the number of buses on the road for several years running, including B-Line style buses, local shuttle buses in suburbs, adding more electric trolleys, SkyTrain, and light rail, while also allowing and regulating “last mile” solutions like shared electric scooters or dockless bikes

• Taxing the heck out of the ownership of private vehicles, with the ultimate aim of slashing non-commercial vehicle ownership by at least half

Yeah, I didn’t think you’d like that last part. I don’t think I’d like it enough to vote for me either, but fortunately, I’m not actually running for office and never, ever will.

If you can come up with a better plan, one that takes into account our shrinking land mass, growing population, need to slash CO2 emissions, and deals with induced demand without paving every scrap of grass between Hope and Squamish, I’d love to hear it.

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