I walked out of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on a Friday night after a captivating performance and headed to the car I had parked in nearby Gastown. I think the sky was clear and starry, although that’s not the point of the story.
Approaching the vehicle after a short stroll, I saw a coloured piece of paper — colloquially known as a parking ticket — carefully placed on the windshield. It wasn’t the usual “I didn’t pay” kind of ticket. Rather one that could be called “I paid but was three minutes late.” Seriously. I looked around trying to spot the parking officer, who must have surely been in the vicinity, to no avail. Can’t say I become enraged easily, but when I do, I go home and open up the budget for the City of Vancouver.
Having issued $16 million worth of tickets in 2016, Vancouver is planning to up its collections by $3 million this year
It takes $1.3 billion a year to run this city. Half of that money comes from property taxes. Another one-sixth is utilities, followed by parking revenue at one-twentieth. Sounds minuscule, but parking brings an additional $60 million to the city’s budget every year. Being quite opaque with how this money is used, let’s hope the city spends it on initiatives targeted at improving transport infrastructure.
I scan the budget further and finally see the line I was looking for — parking bylaw violations. Having issued $16 million worth of tickets in 2016, Vancouver is planning to up its collections by $3 million this year, mostly due to increases in minimum fine amounts. That would bring the total close to 1.5% of the city’s budget. We are only talking parking-related violations.
Most people would agree that $19 million is a lot of money. The amount is certainly enough to make you ponder the underlying reason of those fines. We know that tickets originated as punitive measures, designed to prevent unwanted repetitive behavior, like a negative reinforcement technique practiced by circuses worldwide to make bears ride unicycles. However, at $40–100 a pop, parking tickets are barely a nuisance for the rich, a cause of a short-lived anger for the middle class (ahem, this essay) but, most importantly, can be outright debilitating for the working class residents.
the preventative notion loses all of its power if the primary goal for the city is to source income for its yearly budget.
Say you’re in the latter category. It’s likely that your daily commute is long and windy enough to not be conveniently serviced by TransLink and hence warrants a car. The drive in this case can just as equally be to downtown as to industrial warehouses on Marine Drive. With nearly half of Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, getting a ticket and not being able to pay the discounted fine within 14 days means its cost would jump to around $100. After three violations, the parking authority will also tow your car, adding at least another $100 on top of what you already owe. These amounts are considerable enough to send some Canadians into a downward spiral: not being able to retrieve your car from the impound lot means not being able to commute to work. Means losing your job?
A little bit of a stretch, I admit. Vancouver is not nearly as notorious for predatory ticketing as San Francisco or New York. But where do you draw the line? Should we for once start discussing an issue before it’s gone too far?
If we agree that tickets exist as a preventative measure, they’re clearly not working. Charging everyone the same amount means having a desired effect only on a small slice of the population: barely affecting the rich and putting too much burden on the working class drivers. A possible solution could take inspiration from the income tax system, where fines might vary depending on your household income.
No, the parking officer doesn’t know how much you are making as an Instagram influencer. Does anyone?
However, the preventative notion loses all of its power if the primary goal for the city is to source income for its yearly budget. In this case, the municipality is clearly interested in issuing as many tickets as possible and hence interested in people breaking the law more often. How can a city achieve that?
The most well-known example that comes to mind would be of New York with its predatory alternate-side parking regulations that bring the city upwards of $70 million of revenue a year, and that the de Blasio administration refused to loosen up. Some municipalities come up with parking bylaws so finicky that you can’t help but place them somewhere on the borderline between incompetent bureaucracy and purposeful malice.
What’s obvious now is that the existing parking bylaws are not working as intended.
Another option to explore is a non-monetary substitution. People with no access to cash should be able to donate their time towards the fine. A city can let them to choose from a selection of local non-profits that need their help. Anything from assisting the residents of DTES to cleaning parks could be a fair option. That way people get taxed on their time, but not on their ability to pay.
Of course, there are cases when people neither have time nor money. And if you ask me what to do then, I don’t have a clear answer. Even the options I proposed here are, at best, suggestions with a goal of sparking a conversation. Regulation is complicated and should be thought through from multiple angles, taking into consideration everyone who is affected by it. What’s obvious now is that the existing parking bylaws are not working as intended.
In our age of popularized urbanism, city driving in general and parking in particular have become scapegoats for all the shortcomings of city life: pollution, traffic congestion, odour, lack of green space, injuries, lack of livable space, noise, social isolation, loss of productivity, waste of energy, loss of street life and infidelity. The last one though is tough to argue.
Instead of starting a witch-hunt against cars, we should strive for balance in all modes of transport.
Everyone, from urbanists to city leaders, encourages people to walk more, take transit and bike. Some even question the need for cars altogether. Surely every car owner can rent a condo next to work and buy a bike. So we continue to squeeze cars out by demolishing parkades and tightening up regulations, which ironically worsens congestion by making drivers spend up to 90 hours a year looking for parking spots.
The problem here isn’t in the premise of an argument, but in how dangerously one-sided it is. Hardly anyone would object that parks make city life a little brighter. And sure, bike lanes make cycling safer. However, we always come back to debating the rights of a pedestrian, a cyclist and a driver as if they can never be the same person. Instead of starting a witch-hunt against cars, we should strive for balance in all modes of transport. And how we define that balance is precisely up to us.
There are some questions that I’ve left unanswered in the hopes of a continued conversation. Where are we heading? What is the cost of our inaction? Are we going to watch the city increase its revenue forecasts for parking bylaw violations every year? Until when?
In researching information for this piece, I’ve found out that the ticket issued to me for staying three minutes over was from a private parking company. Those are not enforceable by law. A couple seconds of internal ethical debate have ruled to send it to the garbage. But the argument still stands.