Parking vs. Public Transit

Can cars and public transit coexist peacefully within one city, or is expanded public transit essentially meant to replace cars? The question is one that goes to the heart of a controversy over a new parking tax in Montreal, Canada.

The recently announced tax is based on the surface area of parking lots in downtown Montreal and the central business district, and it is included in the car park owner’s property tax bill. The CA$20 million expected from the tax will be used to expand Montreal’s public transit system, in accordance with the province of Quebec’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the use of public transportation.

Opponents of the tax include the Coalition pour une véritable métropole, comprised of six associations with a stake in Montreal’s economic development. Gerry Girard, President of the Montreal Parking Association, has been a vocal opponent of the tax, saying that the costs will be passed down to parking patrons, making it too costly to park downtown, and ultimately having a significant negative impact on downtown Montreal.

Girard’s argument is that less people will go to downtown Montreal to conduct commercial, recreational and cultural activities. But the tax may simply deter people from driving downtown, and instead utilize the public transportation system – which ironically is being improved via the funds from the very same parking tax that has deterred them from driving downtown.

“People will be given choices,” explains Alan Desousa, Vice Chair of the Executive Committee for Ville de Montreal. “They could bring their cars downtown, but in doing so they might have to pay a little bit more. There are also other inconveniences that they might wish to consider such as traffic congestion. Alternatively, if there is a public transit option offered that is available, efficient, reliable, and saves them time and stress, that may be their preference. My feeling is that if the public transit option is a viable one, more and more people would choose to leave their car at home, and make a public transit choice.”

“We have no problem with people coming downtown,” DeSousa adds. “We just want to make sure they get to downtown in a manner that is not going to lead to increased congestion and emissions of greenhouse gases.”

DeSousa admits that public transportation will not be convenient in every case, and people may sometimes choose to use their cars, but by making it more costly to park downtown, and by funding an improved transit system with the parking tax, Montreal clearly seems to be attempting to reduce the number of cars in that area of the city.

“If you want a viable downtown you have to have both parking and public transportation,” Girard contends. “We in the parking industry are not against public transportation. We support it. But I think the way they are imposing the taxes is a mistake.”

It seems to me that a good public transportation system would help keep the downtown alive, especially an urban downtown as dynamic, vibrant and appealing as Montreal. I do not agree that this tax will definitely hurt downtown Montreal, but on the other hand the idea of the tax doesn’t sit well with me. The tax could be seen as an attack on the parking industry in Montreal, because it targets this one industry.

“In the overall scope of a CA$4.3 billion budget, CA$20 million is small potatoes,” DeSousa says, questioning the legitimacy of the backlash against the tax. “If we were asking them to make a contribution of CA$80 million that would drive parking rates up in a significant manner, I could understand that reaction. But when you look at CA$1 to CA$2 a day, the amounts are relatively miniscule, and I am a bit underwhelmed by the reaction. ”

Everything DeSousa says makes sense, but when you compare a total daily parking rate of CA$5 before the tax vs. CA$7 today, the tax is forcing parking lot owners to raise their rates by 40%. While the tax may not hinder people from coming to downtown Montreal, because they have the public transit alternative, it may seriously reduce parking revenue in Montreal and eventually put some car parks out of business. Maybe that’s the price a city must pay for good public transit, but it just doesn’t seem fair.


John Van Horn

John Van Horn

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