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Vancouver votes down ambitious climate parking plan

The failed motion would have raised roughly $60 million for alternative transportation and would have accounted for 14% of the emission reductions the city aims to make by switching to zero-emission vehicles. What will take its place is not clear.
parking
The motion was defeated in a narrow 6-5 vote after Mayor Stewart opposed the plan. File photo Dan Toulgoet

Vancouver City Council turned down a motion Wednesday to ding new, high-emitting gas-powered vehicles with an annual pollution charge of up to $1,000 and roll out a citywide residential parking fee. 

In a narrow six to five vote, Mayor Kennedy Stewart tipped the balance in favour of axing what staff dubbed the Climate Emergency Parking Program

Stewart said he voted down the motion because he worried that soon “a landscaper living in a basement suite” would have to pay $1,000 a year for a 2023 pickup. 

“That’s not fair,” he said in a written statement. “An effective climate action plan must be just. I’ve asked staff to find a better way forward, and I am confident they will.”

By rejecting the plan — what some experts said could have set a precedent for cities around the world — council kneecapped Vancouver’s ability to meet its own emission targets.

The city has committed to reducing emissions to 50 per cent of 2007 levels by 2030, all while funding green infrastructure and alternative transportation to make Vancouver liveable in an era of climate change. 

The parking program would have raised an estimated $60 million over three years to fund everything from priority bus lanes and pedestrian signals, to planting over 1,000 trees, to constructing over four kilometres of green infrastructure and installing hundreds of electric vehicle charging stations. Staff also said the plan would have accounted for 14 per cent of the emission reductions the city aims to make by switching to zero-emission vehicles. That's equivalent to triple the reductions from the city’s requirements for new zero-emission homes.

Doug Smith, the city’s director of sustainability, said staff spent a year and a half developing the emergency action plan, finally settling on the least expensive, most equitable policies that would provide the biggest impact. 

By not passing the Climate Emergency Parking Program, his team would have to look at the next tier of options — options that are more expensive and “maybe a little bit less palatable.”

“Or we miss our targets,” said Smith. 

In a call with Glacier Media, Coun. Christine Boyle said the outcome of the vote was a “complete failure of leadership.” 

“It’s unacceptable for governments to knowingly miss their targets without proposing other ideas.”

Affecting up to 150,000 city drivers who park on the street, the plan would have helped close a quarter of a $230-million funding gap in the city’s climate action plan. 

Peter McCartney, a climate advocate with the Wilderness Committee, told councillors earlier in the day that turning down the parking plan “would be pretty disastrous in terms of the city's ability to meet its climate targets.”

“This is one of the most ambitious, most concrete climate plans in the country,” he said. 

WHAT WAS THE PLAN? 

The two-step plan would have charged an annual pollution fee on high-emitting vehicles — such as luxury sedans and pickup trucks — manufactured in 2023 and beyond. The highest emitting vehicles would have been charged a $1,000 annual fee, while moderately polluting cars would have faced a $500 tariff. All new cars under $20,000 and most under $30,000 would have been exempt. 

Any specialized vehicles for wheelchairs as well as those built in 2022 or earlier would have also have faced no extra charge. 

The second part of the failed plan looked to implement an overnight parking network in all neighbourhoods not currently under a residential permit parking scheme. If approved, it would have charged a $45 annual fee to park on the street, though it would have dropped to $5 yearly for low-income residents. 

“At its core, paying for private use of public space seems pretty reasonable, certainly at 13 cents a day,” said Coun. Pete Fry in the lead up to the vote.

“I'm super frustrated that this reasonable idea took a bit of a left turn in the public... that allowed it to be mischaracterized as ‘greenwashing.’”

Coun. Lisa Dominato, who voted to oppose the plan, said council should be looking at a regional approach that includes all 21 Metro Vancouver municipalities because “emissions know no boundaries.” 

Only minutes before, staff told council that other jurisdictions, including the province, have no comparable plan to address emissions through parking fees.

DIVIDED PUBLIC OPINION

For more than eight hours Wednesday, city council heard from over 50 experts and residents, many divided on whether the parking and pollution fee plan should be approved. But divisions over the climate policy had appeared weeks earlier.

In the lead up to the vote, nearly 19,000 people took part in a public survey — one of the biggest turnouts in the city's history. Results showed a strong majority opposed to both parts of the parking plan. Over 70 per cent disagreed with the pollution charge and 80 per cent disagreed with the plan to roll out a citywide overnight permit plan.

At the same time, staff also contracted a polling firm to survey a demographically representative slice of the city. In the first round of polling, 55 per cent supported the pollution charge and 31 per cent supported overnight parking. 

But in a follow-up survey, where staff said they clarified which vehicles would be exempt, support for the pollution charge rose to 63 per cent, whereas 45 per cent of respondents favoured the overnight permit plan.

“There was absolutely misinformation around this,” Coun. Boyle told Glacier Media. 

Indeed, staff circulated a memo to councillors after several residents who spoke in opposition to the parking and pollution fees wrongly stated second-hand vehicles built before 2023 would be charged; another spoke to council under the false understanding that parking fees would cost her upwards of $400.

Some residents speaking to city council lauded the plan as an important step forward in reducing carbon emissions and making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Others approved of the permit parking plan as a tool to help manage overflow street parking as the city moves to eliminate mandatory minimum parking in new buildings.

One resident opposed to the plan likened the policy to a “war on cars.” Daryl Sturdy claimed city staff and a majority of councillors had already made up their mind before the vote and failed to properly listen to residents opposed to the parking scheme. 

“When there's such an overwhelming response to the question, ‘Do you support this or not?’ Then, if they're asking that question, there has to be some respect for the answer they get,” resident David Fine told council. 

QUESTIONS OVER EQUITY

Many opposed to the parking plan said they would prefer an extension of permit parking at a neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood level.

Fine pointed to concerns raised by SFU researcher Andy Yan, who questioned whether the plan would unfairly affect working households largely on Vancouver’s Eastside. 

Despite concerns over fairness, city staff said half of low-income people in the city don’t own a car and 63 per cent of renters supported the overnight permit plan. 

Kathryn Harrison, University of British Columbia climate policy researcher, told Glacier Media it’s not surprising the parking program triggered a backlash.

“We’ve seen it time and time again,” she said. “Opponents will argue that it’s unfair, it won’t work and that it’s a tax grab.”

Part of that gut opposition comes from people feeling blamed for their role in climate change. But in a city like Vancouver, which doesn’t produce a lot of industrial pollution, it's not easy to blame a single factory — internal combustion engine vehicles make up the largest share of carbon emissions at 39 per cent.

“I don’t think it’s just the cost, it’s the sense that they are being blamed. This isn’t about blame, this is about transitioning our economy and we can all play a role in that,” she said.

Many residents who spoke to council objected to the plan with some version of “why are you targeting city drivers who don’t have the luxury of off-street parking?”

But Harrison, as well as several other speakers, called on Vancouver to question the fundamental assumption a city should offer its land up for free parking. 

“Is it fair to provide free access to public lands to store privately owned vehicles, especially when low-income households are less likely to own a car?” Harrison asked council.

“Is it fair to treat decisions about vehicle purchases, simply as an individual choice, when that choice imposes costs on other people's health today, and in the future?”

UBC Sauder School of Business professor Thomas Davidoff told council the new $45 annual fee was “grotesquely underpriced.” If it were turned into housing, he calculates the annual cost of a single parking space in Vancouver works out to roughly $3,200 a year. 

“I don't see how you can seriously say that a $45 fee for households making north of $50,000 is all of a sudden an economic burden,” he said. “Forty-five dollars is absolute peanuts.” 

Harrison, meanwhile, said her research shows carbon pricing is one of the most effective tools to reduce emissions. But it’s also become a political lightning rod.

The most important factor that determines whether someone opposes or supports carbon pricing, she said, is what politicians they trust are telling them.

“If (politicians) say, ‘It’s a tax grab,’ they’ll believe it, even if it costs them money, even if they get more back,” she said. “There’s an opportunity for politicians to lead. Not to play partisan politics with a policy that’s designed to protect vulnerable residents of the city.”

Just how vulnerable some of the city's neighbourhoods are was made clear when, in June, a record heat wave killed at least 569 people. Health officials said more people died in low-income neighbourhoods where people lived alone surrounded by fewer trees. Money from the parking plan could have ostensibly be used to help close that gap, suggested staff. But it's not just contributing to extreme global temperatures that has doctors worried about the health impact of gas-powered cars.

As Melissa Lem, president-elect of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, put it to council: “Air pollution from burning fossil fuels also causes heart attacks, asthma, dementia, depression, and developmental delays in kids and kills over 15,000 people every year in our country.”

AN UNDELIVERED MESSAGE TO OTHER CITIES

City staff said the permit parking plan would have put Vancouver on track to follow in the footsteps of cities like Montreal, Oslo, Norway, and Sydney, Australia.

But with Vancouver in the spotlight this week, Wednesday’s vote drew attention from jurisdictions beyond Canada. Michael Kodransky, the U.S. director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, said he was inspired to speak to council after a colleague flagged the vote.

“Vancouver seems to be understanding that you hold the power over the street, and you hold the power over the parking program. And so that's where you can have an impact in tandem with conversations at the regional level,” he told council earlier in the day.

When his organization recently studied transportation options across 25 cities, Vancouver was found to have the second best access to public transit in North America.

“Vancouver already has the (transit) backbone,” he said. “And that’s important in pursuing any sort of parking pricing strategy because they have to work in tandem.” 

Kodransky said he has spent years helping cities move to more sustainable transportation options across Latin America and Asia. In that time, he told Glacier Media he has seen many cities around the world move to lower air pollution through parking permitting. 

But none of them, he said, have so clearly linked parking with climate change.

“It will send a signal,” he said of the parking plan hours before the vote, telling council: “I commend you and the world is watching.”

As it became clear the vote was not going to pass, Coun. Boyle, a leading climate advocate on council and ally during Mayor Kennedy Stewart’s election run, said she understands how politically challenging a ‘yes’ vote would be.

“But we need to prioritize the timeline of climate science above the timeline of our political cycles,” she told council.

Coun. Boyle later told Glacier Media she is confident other cities will pick up the mantle where Vancouver has failed. 

“These conversations build on each other,” she said pacing outside of council chambers. “I'll wake up and start thinking about it tomorrow.” 

Stefan Labbé is a solutions journalist. That means he covers how people are responding to problems linked to climate change — from housing to energy and everything in between. Have a story idea? Get in touch. Email slabbe@glaciermedia.ca

Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated the Climate Emergency Parking Plan would have reduced carbon emissions by up to 14%. The plan, in fact, would have accounted for 14% of the emission reductions the city aims to make by switching to zero-emission vehicles.