Climate change, caused by carbon pollution, is the biggest threat facing the world right now. Canada deserves a lot of blame for the situation we’re in. As I wrote earlier this month, Canada has failed to meet every single major climate goal we’ve set, we have the third-highest carbon dioxide emissions per person of the G20 countries and we’re the 10th worst carbon emitter in the world, of all time.

In 2019, transportation made up a full quarter of Canada’s carbon emissions. And from 1990 to 2019, emissions in the transportation sector increased by 54 per cent, driven in part by the number of people driving pickup trucks and SUVs.

The situation gets worse in certain areas of Canada, particularly major cities. For example, transportation was the cause of more than a third of Toronto’s total emissions in 2019, with the vast majority of that (80 per cent) coming from personal vehicles.

So, with that in mind, reducing the number of people using their personal vehicles in Toronto, and other major Canadian cities, is a top priority. There are many steps needed to achieve this goal, but one that can be taken immediately is to reduce both the number of parking spots built in the future, as well as cutting back the existing stock.

Here’s why we need to make parking more difficult in major Canadian cities, how we can do that and what the benefits will be.

For decades, cities have been designed by and for the car: wide roads, freeways, and of course parking. Sprawling lots, ample space on the street and towering parking garages are all part of the downtown landscape. This has been to the detriment of everyone else.

In order to reduce the usage of personal vehicles, two things need to happen simultaneously: driving your own car needs to be made into a less convenient option, and attractive alternatives need to be presented that will make the transition to public transit an upgrade.

One way cities can make it less appealing for people to rely on private vehicles is by reducing the number of parking spots available. Staff at Toronto City Hall — which only looks like a giant parking garage from one side — have a proposal with this in mind.

Their November 10 report on the matter notes, “The city’s strategy to address the environmental emergency […] calls for a significant reduction in the use of automobiles, and electrification of the automobile use that remains. To achieve this target will require very significant and sustained effort. In support of this strategy, limiting the growth of parking and even removing existing parking are justified.” The report adds, “Parking supply management is generally considered one of the most effective ways of managing the demand for automobile trips.” This proposal passed through the Planning and Housing Committee on Thursday, and will be voted on by city council in December.

Toronto isn’t the only city in Canada considering or actively pursuing the reduction of parking as a means to cut back on personal vehicle usage. This is something many other cities across the country — including Ottawa, Oakville, Calgary and Winnipeg — have implemented to one extent or another. Meanwhile, cities around the world are taking far more aggressive action. Following the COP26 climate summit, for example, the host city of Glasgow announced it would make its downtown car-free within five years as part of a plan to turn the city carbon neutral by 2030.

Beyond just having environmental benefits, reducing the number of cars will make streets safer and more pleasant for anyone not inside them. This is a growing group in Toronto, as 40 per cent of apartment dwellers citywide didn’t have cars as of 2016, with that number rising to about 55 per cent of all households in some wards.

A 2020 OECD report found that pedestrian fatalities in Canada rose nearly 6 per cent from 2010 to 2018. In 2012, Ontario’s chief coroner released a report that examined every incidence of a pedestrian being killed by a vehicle in the province in 2010. The coroner found 76 per cent of all pedestrian deaths happened in a city. Moreover, most of the fatalities happened during peak driving times —  between 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., from Monday to Friday.

Reducing the number of drivers in cities will have clear safety benefits, but not just in terms of avoiding collisions. There’s also health benefits as well, as living near a major roadway, which a 2019 study found more than a third of Canadians do, presents significant health risks due to exhaust, as well as other roadside pollution, such as brake dust. This puts many people living in cities in danger.

The benefits of reducing parking are clear. But how can it be done? The report from Toronto city hall offers one suggestion: Instead of requiring minimum amounts of parking with new construction, it would instead impose maximum limits. This would incentivize relying on transit instead of private vehicles, but it would have other benefits as well.

The city’s report notes that parking spots take up at least 22 square metres of space, and,  “Put in context, entire one-bedroom apartments of 42-55 square metres are not uncommon in new developments.” That’s an enormous fraction of construction space being taken up by parking, increasing the size, price tag and complexity of new buildings by forcing larger and deeper underground garages to be built. As it stands, the average cost for a developer to construct a parking spot in a new building in Toronto is between $48,000 and $160,000.

So, abolishing minimum parking requirements would help reduce the costs of buildings, perhaps making living in the city a little more affordable. This is a crucial counterpoint to the argument some may make that reducing parking spots would ensure only the rich can afford them, hurting the working class.  The report also shows the wealthier a household, the more likely they are to own a vehicle: 61 per cent of households with incomes of less than $40,000 don’t own a car, but that number drops to 21 per cent for households with incomes more than $100,000. Cars primarily benefit those with money.

But to make this plan work, there has to be more done than just making it difficult to park. People still need to get around. Walking, cycling, taking the train or the bus — all of these transportation options need to be improved. This isn’t about punishing people, it’s about changing the landscape of cities for the better.

A transit project in Toronto offers a great example of how this can be done. In 2017, Toronto reduced car traffic on a chunk of King Street, which contains one of the city’s major west-east streetcar lines. As part of the trial, cars would now no longer be able to turn left or go straight through intersections in this strip, instead being forced to turn right at almost every block, making it easier for streetcars to travel unimpeded. Parking was also removed from the street, with more room given to streetcar stops and seating areas.

The goal was to increase the number of people taking the streetcar, and it worked. As the Toronto Star reports, within a year, “weekday rush-hour streetcar boardings skyrocket[ed] from 72,000 to 84,000, and overall people movement into downtown increase[d] while vehicle traffic decreased.” A city report also found that it caused a 25 per cent increase in efficiency of transit along the corridor. The trial was made permanent, and it remains a great example of how parking can be taken away, and car travel disincentivized, while offering something better to people.

Any changes in city parking must ensure the needs of people with disabilities aren’t overlooked. This means improving accessibility of transit — in Toronto, many subway stations still don’t have elevator access, and aren’t set to until 2024 in some cases, while streetcars without ramps were only phased out entirely in December 2019 — and retaining enough accessible parking along the way.

But the status quo doesn’t work for seniors or people with disabilities. For example, the previously mentioned 2012 coroner’s report found that 10 per cent of fatalities were people who needed some kind of physical mobility assistance, and those 65 and older made up 36 per cent of deaths despite being less than 14 per cent of the population.

As a whole, getting rid of more parking isn’t a revolutionary idea — it’s a small reform, but it’s a critical one. Major cities should do what’s necessary and make it more difficult to park.