The Toronto Parking Authority exists solely to subsidize drivers of private automobiles

Photo by phototouring.

I'm no fan of privatizing government services as a panacea, but when it comes to the Toronto Parking Authority I waver. The TPA, as the Toronto Star notes, was explicitly created to undercut the prices of private parking lots. The TPA was created in the '50s "after department stores complained customers weren't shopping downtown because of price gouging by private parking lot operators". I wonder if they bothered to measure and define "price gouging" versus a fair price, or if drivers just felt they were paying too much.

But then driving is not a cheap pastime and parking lots downtown aren't built cheaply. A parking operator downtown must purchase the expensive downtown land, and must make enough money off of parking to make it worthwhile. The owner of the land would probably also consider the alternative uses of that land. We can see that parking is just not as profitable as alternative uses by seeing just how many downtown parking lots are being turned into condos or commercial buildings.

The City has a by-law that limits what the TPA can charge drivers for on-street parking at $3.50 per hour. There is no such limit for public transit fees.

179-7. D. The Parking Authority shall be authorized to fix rates for on-street parking meters or parking machines, provided that such rates do not exceed $3.50 per hour and have been agreed to by the Ward Councillors for the Ward in which the parking meters or parking machines are located. [Amended 2009-12-04 by By-law No. 1181-2009]

According to the Toronto Star, on-street rates have only increased 50 cents since 1999, supposedly to "reflect inflation". But this maximum limit hasn't even kept up with inflation. According to the Bank of Canada $3 in 1999 would be $3.90 now. We're subsidizing drivers even more than 12 years ago.

In the off-street Green P lots the TPA by City bylaw undercuts neighbouring businesses by setting its prices at "75 per cent of any nearby competitor's". I could imagine that by making parking less profitable the TPA might be ironically reducing the amount of off-street parking downtown when a business can make more money by converting the parking lot to some other use.

There's been a lot of right-wing talk about how we "subsidize" public transit and cyclists but they nicely avoid any look at how the public sector has favoured private automobile operators by showering them with subsidizies, free roads and cheap parking. We all pay for Toronto roads, freeways and parking whether we use them a lot or next to never. This is neither fair nor efficient. We are all effectively paying large amounts of money to keep catering to the least efficient, least sustainable and most polluting form of transportation. But then the drivers might argue that it is their right to gouge us all to have the freedom to drive (at least Rob Ford would claim so).

We don't live in a political culture that wants to admit how car drivers are privileged. By privatizing the TPA we may add some distance between politicians and the urge to set limits on what it can charge. Drivers tend to get angry at the corporation that runs the 407 when it raises its rates, but it's probably a good thing that they can't undo its pricing decisions via politicians. The 407 was a hugely expensive venture funded by the province; its building reportedly cost 1.6 billion dollars but acquiring the land cost the province 100 billion dollars over 30 years, according to Hansard, the Ontario government's newsletter. The prices better be high enough to make that money back (despite the high price tag, Harris' Tories leased it to a consortium for 99 years at only 3.1 billion dollars).

Privatizing the TPA won't prevent politicians from trying to put a limit on what it can charge if the 407 is any indication. The province went to court with the 407 consortium to prevent them from raising the toll rates since the contract required them to first get approval from the government. It appears that the 407 consortium won the right to raise tolls to maintain smooth traffic levels. But when the Liberal government wanted to build an extension it decided that it would keep ownership for itself so it could once again keep the tolls low enough to placate drivers (according to Wikipedia).

Perhaps a privatized TPA would gain the freedom to charge what is in its own best interest and what happens to be in the best interest of the whole city. I'd be happy to keep the TPA public, however, if politicians could be trusted to let the TPA to charge the same rates as private operators.

Update: a previous version incorrectly said "Toronto Public Authority" - it has been corrected.


but when it comes to the Toronto Public Authority I waver. The TPA,

shouldn't that read: Toronto Parking Authority ??

I hope that there is no public authority, they should just leave US alone!

Car drivers say they pay for the roads via gas taxes. False since the Downloading that money only goes to the 400 series. All the money for most roads comes from the local taxpayers.
Toronto and Canada to the most part has the highest transit fares in North America. In the US they are about half what we pay. 407 should be free and 401 through Toronto toll as well as all others south ot the city limits. Them add a local car tax like Florida has/had with the money split between area of home and work. Transit passes rather than free parking for workers.
As a note from what I've seen it is cheaper to park in Toronto on a monthly basis than in Ottawa.

Good analysis, Herb. You may know that many cities in the U.S. (California in particular) are experimenting with demand-based on-street parking meter rates, instead of the subsidized flat fee we have here. This allows the local government to keep the most parking revenue while free market forces determine the price. It's almost embarrassing that Toronto isn't already moving forward with this. Here's a link to a good discussion.

Private parking lots will operate as long as they're profitable. When it becomes more profitable to develop the lot as a condo or office building, they will. The TPA provides competition, discouraging price gouging. Why shouldn't we gouge drivers for wanting to park in our city? Well, there are lots and lots of legitimate reasons for driving a car downtown. and if a parking lot is able to remain profitable by charging $50 and hour that lot will remain a parking lot for a lot longer. The TPA helps encourage development of vacant lots and provides revenue for the city. It should be more expensive, but should undercut the private lots as often as possible.

My husband and I live downtown. We don't own a car, but have and Autoshare membership, and we ride, walk and TTC it pretty much everywhere but I'm still very aware that the way the market values land and the way our current governments allow that to put pressure on some public institutions and infrastructure, I don't believe is in the best interest of our economy or our civic environment.

Would you eliminate subsidized housing downtown because the market would say that living downtown is very expensive so maybe we shouldn't be subsidizing that land use either? St. Michael's college is building highrise condos on their property to get more money. Is that right? That's a multifaceted problem that also has to do with government funding of universities. So what does that have to do with parking? I don't think most of us could pay market value for all the downtown roads we have.

It is a question of understanding that all kinds of people live in and use the downtown and need parking. Not everyone can live like us, carless. I absolutely think we should be providing better alternatives to getting around but the reality is that affordable parking is still really important for downtown residents and businesses, especially small businesses and the city parking lots are part of our transportation infrastructure.


Subsidies from government are a part of any complex society, but I would hardly compare subsidized housing to subsidized parking. I wouldn't cut subsidies to low-income housing for two reasons: one, in my opinion, a roof over your head in a society that has the abundance to provide it is a moral right. I admit that's a moral/political view on my part. What is less opinionated is the other reason; that if you turf out low-income residents from subsidized housing, society will suffer more problems than the money saved from subsidies. Subsidized housing is efficient.

Subsidized parking is anything but efficient. It artificially inflates the demand to drive and causes congestion. Meanwhile, the people who are willing to pay market rates for parking can't find a spot. Studies cited in Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking estimate anywhere from 10%-30% of drivers are cruising for parking in some neighbourhoods. While they do so they drive slow, don't pay attention to cyclists and pedestrians, and turn right at every block.

I'll second Brad but also make some additional points. In order to get into subsidized housing one must prove that they have a low income and are then deemed worthy of paying less than market rate. Subsidized parking is available to everyone, regardless of income. In fact, subsidized parking actually is skewed to those with either income because they are much more likely to own a car than the rest of the populace who might be stuck on long commutes by transit.

If we felt a need to provide affordable transportation to some part of the populace we could find much cheaper ways to get them around. Perhaps a free shuttle van for point to point trips, or gift certificates for Autoshare, in addition to targeted subsidies for transit. I would say that we maybe we should stop trying to keep transit fares low when we could just target transit subsidies to just the low income folks.

Kristin, you need to think wider - you can't just work backwards from assuming that these people need to be in a car and then try to find a justification for why we need to subsidize these car trips.

OpenFile carried a piece a few days ago that covered much of the same ground on parking subsidies. I would agree with the guy that I think it would be best that the TPA was kept as a public entity, but with a revised mission that is beyond just trying to make parking cheaper than what the competition is offering (albeit with better service). To that end the politicians should get rid of the upper limit on prices and allow the TPA to charge whatever it feels is necessary. Then to make it all more palatable all the profit coming out of the TPA should go into public transit and Bixi Toronto to reduce the demand on car parking.

The city provides free posts and locks for bicyclists..what's wrong with some degree of assistance for drivers? While I hardly ever drive in the city, my wife does often to take our son to doctor's appointments. The free market leads to abuse particularly when no other parking options exist in a given area. I am glad green P exists.

Parking a car downtown requires a hell of a lot more subsidies than parking a bike, fabien. I don't understand why the government should be providing me more financial help to be able to park a car downtown than a bike. It is completely inefficient. The government is basically creating an incentive, trying to lure me off my bike (or transit) and into a car. What a waste of money.

A post and ring is a ridiculously cheap piece of infrastructure compared to a car parking spot. A post and ring is squished onto the sidewalk. If you want to park on the outside you'll often find that your body is exposed to speeding cars as you bend over to lock your bike. I'm always amazed how close I get to being hit. A post and ring with two bikes takes up roughly 0.3m by 2m of public space, good for two people on bikes.

A car parking spot is good for one car that on average carries about 1 person. The required space is about 2.6 m wide by 6.7 m in length (, about 30 times the amount of square metres of public space.

With space so tight in this city, I wonder why we are so eager to dedicate this space to the private automobile, instead of coming up with a much more efficient public transit system.

If someone needs to get to a doctor's appointment in an expensive city, why don't they just accept that parking is going to be expensive or just take a taxi? These are the choices you make by living in the big city.

The parking space for a car is BIGGER than a typical office cubicle. More real estate for a car that just drips oil than a human who is actually working.

I was tempted by herb's argument, but there is a key detail that makes supporting TPA privatization a strategic failure: any TPA sale would almost certainly include contractual provisions governing the supply of metered on-street parking spaces for decades to come. Any potential private purchaser (and their financial backers) for the TPA would want assurances that the Authority's mandate and revenues would be protected as a privately-owned body, necessitating contractual language enjoining the city from reducing said Authority or revenue-base. Not only is this the same kind of terrible profit-privatizing scam at work in so many of these boondoggles, but of more concern in the I Bike TO context is that this would tie the city's hands in any future attempts to adjust the division of pedestrian/cyclist/vehicle space in the public right-of-way, crippling bike network and sidewalk expansions.

The challenges of negotiating with local business owners who believe their economic security is tied to on-street parking spaces would be fondly remembered compared with what would follow almost any conceivable TPA privatization: contractual obligations that would legally prevent the city from reducing parking space numbers.

That's a good point, Michael. As far as on-street parking is concerned, having the space contractually revenue-making would be a problem. It would make it harder, or at least more expensive, to change the space to other uses, including bike lanes or on-street bike parking.

At heart I just wish the TPA could charge whatever it could for parking - no upper limits in the by-law. Since it's politically difficult, it might be better to privatize the TPA, but as you point out things are never that simple.

The problem is that, if you look at the GTA as a whole, the public transportation infrastructure is completely inadequate. By world standards, the fact that Toronto's subway does not even go to the airport makes us the laughingnstock of the world. I am not big on cars and car subsidies but the real problem is the lack of political will to develop a ubiquitous transit system. It'sneasy to blame the drivers, but I am more inclined to blame the politicians. We need world class politicians with an urban vision for 21st century canada. Unfortunately neither our prime minister nor the mayor of canada's largest city have a forward-looking urban vision. THAT is the real tragedy.

Herb. Do you really think the city is trying to lure you off your bike and into car? Really? By that logic subsidized housing is a ploy to lure you from your job and home.

I'm not a fan of TPA discount parking but let's not blow this way out of proportion. Having cheaper parking spaces in the city doesn't detract from public transit. Transit sucks all on it's own without any help.

It is unfortunate that the best doctors are centralized downtown. I would love to bicycle with my cousin to his radiation and chemotherapy but that is not possible.

Life in the big city also means there are lots of people in different situations that may not share your idealogical viewpoint. This requires accepting and accommodating the needs of others.
Even if you find them unpleasant.

With politicians concerned (rightly) about the state of city finances, and (rightly) concerned about the levels of business taxation (Toronto taxes homeowners at a lower rate than the rest of the GTA), the prevailing civic culture holds that we cannot subsidize everything and everybody. More for some people means less for others. Everyone cannot get what they want; every use of civic resources, including public space, requires justification. I agree, at least partly, with Herb here: given the resources available to the drivers of private cars, and given the overall negative effects of driving, motorists have a poor case for a public subsidy. While raising parking rates to levels the market will bear would undoubtedly lead to hardship for a minority of people, it makes more sense to target any subsidies to that minority, for example by providing hospitals with parking passes for patients, than by providing a subsidy to all drivers.

John G. Spragge
Mariner, cyclist, pilot

We are all paying to give drivers a break on parking. Our government is complicit in making driving downtown more attractive.

In bike-friendly cities like Copenhagen they have slowly been removing car parking downtown for decades, making it harder to park. It's effectively a toll. If we want to start reducing congestion let's start with raising parking rates. What better way to invest in transit than to put parking profits into efficient public transit?

So, yes, I do believe that the City has an unstated policy of trying to make driving easy and affordable.

I love it: people always bring up the doctor example, like you're trying to get our sympathy with the worst case scenario (second time in these comments). Have you heard of taxis and ambulances? And if you've got the time, take the bus. Poor taxi drivers are losing out when we subsidize private automobiles.

Maybe we should sell the TPA to private hands. They will increase the rates and then people will turn to bicycles, public transit, and taxis as an alternative.

Green P's rates on garages are marginally too low, but the least important of the rate structures where public parking is concerned.

On-Street Parking is the most obvious, by way of comparison to Toronto's top rate of $3.50 per hour:

Vancouver: $5.00 p/h
Calgary: $5.00 p/h
Chicago: $5.00 p/h (going to $6.50 by 2013

Its important though to frame this not as anti-driver (you'll never get a hike through that way; but rather by first deriding a subsidized or artificially low rate which costs the City at least 5M per year, possibly more than double that.

But secondly, note that on-street parking is typically short-term, and so not really that costly; what it is (where available) is super convenient; but only if you can find a space. The best argument for free-market pricing is, you're more likely to find a space when you need one.

Having said all that, there is no bigger fiasco in this area that PERMIT Parking.

Permits range from $15 per month to $45 or . 50c to $1.50 PER DAY.

That's completely unjustifiable.

I went looking on to see what it would cost to rent a space in various city neighbourhoods from a private business/home.

The range was $60 per month in a few select areas; $100 in most; and over $220 per month downtown.

Surely City rates should be in-line with or at least close to those rates.

I think a reasonable start would be doubling current rates to $30 per month for those w/no space on their own property; and those who either have a space or want a second permit should immediately be bumped to no less than $60 per month.

We're literally talking millions and millions of dollars in revenue; which depending on your political disposition could go to bettter public services, lower debts or lower taxes or some combination of the above.

I think its again important to say, to those with whom we may disagree, let's leave what to do with the money to a separate fight, so we don't fail to get the money due to ideological differences.

Simply subsidizing cars less will create the climate for fairer treatment of other transportation choices.

@ Kristin

The key questions are does this subsidization of parking conduce to the greater good? what is the return in (social, revenue, cultural) capital for this tremendous public investment in private automobile storage? to what extent do parking prices reflect the true costs (including externalities) of providing such amenities?

It's ironic that the prevailing perspective among motorists availing themselves of such services is that they're actually net contributors to the public weal. That's simply not so.

It speaks to how inured is Toronto to the lure of car culture when our current municipal luminaries extol business protocols in virtually everything governmental -- health care, permits and licenses, development projects, etc. -- with the conspicuous exception of motorists' prerogatives. Public transit is curtailed if it infringes upon automotive throughput; road tolls are verboten; and so is the notion of charging what the market will bear for parking rates.

True not all in our auto crazy society can live without a car; and wise policy shouldn't necessarily purpose to that end. But the cost of supplying affordable parking can be uneconomical. And though it cannot be remotely considered a right we insist on treating it like it is.

The economic effects of car subsidies create a rationing by queuing: the economic system of the (defunct) Soviet Union. I believe that creates a problem of unpredictability, because rationing by scarcity, as opposed to rationing by price, creates a perverse effect. We know that a pattern of unpredictable rewards strongly reinforces behavior; that explains why people get addicted to gambling. Subsidizing parking rather than rationing it by price means that most of the time, drivers will waste substantial time sitting in traffic and waiting for a place to park, but sometimes they will find a parking space right away. With a fixed price for parking, set at the highest rate drivers will pay, auto users can plan; they can decide whether to use their cars based on a predictable cost in money rather than an unpredictable cost in time.

John G. Spragge
Mariner, cyclist, pilot

@ John G. Spragge.

Quite so. There's little that's more effective at informing rational decisions and wise behavior than prices rooted in true value and real cost. What we have presently with the wholesale subsidization of parking (including ancillaries such as parking lot minimums in zoning regulations) is a gross distortion of that relationship.

The outcome is all too predictable: a forfeiture that's difficult to quantify and still harder to justify.

@ John G. Spragge.

Quite so. There's little that's more effective at informing rational decisions and wise behavior than prices rooted in true value and real cost. What we have presently with the wholesale subsidization of parking (including ancillaries such as parking lot minimums in zoning regulations) is a gross distortion of that relationship.

The outcome is all too predictable: a forfeiture that's difficult to quantify and still harder to justify.

I agree, the TPA is a good example of how the government continues to subsidize automobile travel. If the TPA was privately owned, parking costs would be much higher, and more parking spaces would either be sold to developers or converted to taller parking garages which is a more efficient use of land.

If you look at how the city was planned, especially the suburbs, it is the city that forces developers to put X amount of parking spots when the are constructing a building. A lot of the times the city even forces the parking to be in front of the building, so that the streetscape becomes a long field of parking lots. The city also sets limits how tall a building can be, which makes neighbourhoods more spread out, further encouraging people use cars since we know have to drive long distances.

I'm not saying the solution to everything is the private market, but if the city didn't interfere with developers, we would actually have fewer fields of parking lots, and taller buildings which are more environmentally friendly and convenient for commuting since everything is closer together.

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