Toronto chose cheap parking over car sharing, so maybe it’s time for a vanner revolution

May 31, 2018

by Matt Elliott

Let me tell you about maybe the cheapest possible way to live in this city.

First, get yourself a van. It doesn’t need to be a nice or a new van. You can go vintage. Then, find a friend who lives in Toronto on a street with on-street permit parking. Get them to apply for a permit for your cool van.

Then live in your van.

Assuming your friend doesn’t have their own car or on-site parking, it’ll cost you $15.44 a month, plus HST, for the permit. If they do have a car or on-site parking it could cost a bit more — up to $54.12 a month, plus tax.

But either way, you’re living in Toronto at a massive discount.

Sure, there are downsides to van life. Sleeping in a van in a permitted on-street parking space probably runs afoul of some “laws.” And it might get awfully cold at night sometimes. And you’d need to dispense with modern amenities, like running water and electricity. And by becoming a person who lives in a van, you’d be obligated to grow a hipster beard and spend half your day on Instagram.

But again: after the upfront costs of buying a van off Craigslist or whatever, you’re looking at rent that basically costs 15 bucks a month. 51 cents a day! That’s a lot cheaper than the $1,829 the average Toronto rental is listed for these days, according to a February report by the city’s Tenant Issues Committee. And – let’s be real – those units are probably not a whole lot bigger than the square footage of your van anyway.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. Toronto’s streets are a shared resource. They are principally designed to move people. And yet the cost of parking vehicles on those streets is priced so low that van life starts to look appealing.

Should we be looking at better uses of our streets beyond parking? Beyond van living?

Well, easier said than done.

For proof, consider the saga of car sharing agency car2go, which announced last week that it would be suspending operations in Toronto effective today. The company cited two reasons for their decision to leave the city, both related to a new set of regulations affecting car sharing passed by Toronto City Council in April, as part of a pilot project.

One of the reasons was cost. The 18-month pilot project passed by council on April 24  specifically affects “free-floating” car-share services. This isn’t about flying cars, but rather services in which users don’t need to start and end their trips in designated parking spaces or lots, but rather can park on most streets with on-street parking. The purpose of the pilot was to permit these vehicles to park legally in Toronto, collect data and report on outcomes. For free-floating car-share services – of which car2go was the only one of the kind operating in Toronto – the staff report proposed an annual permit fee of $1,499.02 per car-share vehicle.

That’s a bit steep. For comparison, it’s about eight times more per year than you’d pay to park, and maybe live in, a van.

In their letter to customers, car2go North America president Paul DeLong noted it’s higher than the fees the company pays in any other North American city it operates in. But this feels like a solvable problem. Put car2go and other operators in a room with city staff and have them come up with a number that feels fair.

But the other reason car2go says they’re leaving is a much harder nut to crack. It goes back to why I opened this column by bizarrely espousing the benefits of living in a van. It’s about Toronto’s addiction to cheap and plentiful parking.

Council debated the free-floating car-share regulations three times – in October, January and April – the first two times opting to delay the issue rather than approve the item. Every time, the debate on the council floor focused almost exclusively on one thing: parking.

Councillors wanted to know what this would mean for residents who park on their street. They were concerned about homeowners who might have to park further away from their homes. They fretted about whether these cars might come to suburban streets. Nowhere in the debate was there any significant discussion about whether parking rates for vehicle owners are too cheap. Or whether there are better uses for our streets than cheap storage for people who own cars – uses like, say, allowing people to access on-demand car-share services.

In the end, council’s concerns about parking resulted in two substantial changes to the pilot project initially proposed by city staff. First, they blocked car-share vehicles from parking on all streets in which the permit parking supply is deemed to be at 95% of available capacity, limiting where car-share users can access vehicles. Second, they created a mechanism through which community councils would be able to restrict car-share parking on other streets.

The result is a jagged little map with a lot of restricted areas, and the potential for more parking restrictions to come. Not really the kind of regulations you would implement if you were serious about increasing car-share usage.

It is, on the other hand, exactly what you would do if you were more concerned about making sure residents who own cars continue to enjoy cheap and available on-street parking.

Car2go’s decision to leave Toronto rather than play by these rules isn’t the final word on the pilot project passed by council. Other operators – such as Montreal-based Communauto, who has said they have plans to set up shop here – may find the regulations more palatable than car2go did.

But even still, car2go’s decision – and the drawn-out debate that preceded it – speaks to the enduring power of the parking status quo, and the struggle to change it. The benefits of embracing widespread car sharing are clear. According to studies cited in the staff report, car sharing reduces vehicle ownership, reduces vehicle kilometres travelled and reduces emissions. All of these things, weighed objectively, should matter more than cheap and available parking.

But council chose not to see that. In a battle between parking and mobility, parking won out. At this rate, permit parking might one day be the last affordable thing in Toronto.

Time, I guess, to start van shopping.