David Soknacki’s parking ban is brilliant. Here’s why…

Last week,
Good policy

Gridlock plagues Toronto.  There are two many cars and not enough traffic lanes to fit them through efficiently.  Naturally, there are two solutions: reduce the number of cars, or increase the available lanes of traffic.

Many people are focused exclusively on reducing the number of cars.  We might, indeed, succeed in reducing the average number of private car trips per person in the near future, but the number of people is going to increase faster than the decrease in auto use. So, the absolute number of cars on our roads will only increase in the immediate future.  And, don’t forget that cars are not the only vehicles using our roads.  The computer I’m typing on didn’t get to the store where I bought it on a bicycle or a subway.  It came on a truck, from a train, from a ship.  As our population grows, more people will want to eat, sleep, sit down and work.  They will need more food, beds, couches and desks.  All of these will be delivered by trucks, on our roads.  Even buses drive on roads.  Streetcars too — whether mixed in with cars, or in separate lanes.  We’re not building more Earth, we have to share what we’ve got.

Barring a major war in the city or catastrophic economic collapse, reducing the number of vehicles on our streets is simply not in the cards within the next 50 years.  If you live and work in downtown Toronto, you may very well be able to live most of your life without owning or using a private automobile.  But, if you live and/or work outside the downtown core, that is likely impossible — and unlikely to change for most people within the next 50 years.  That said, with proper planning, Toronto of 2064 might very well begin to see a reduction in automobile use.

The other option of course, is to increase the number of traffic lanes.  We can do this by building more roads — something that would be toxic to even suggest in the current political climate.  Soknacki’s proposal, however, accomplishes this in an efficient way.  Every major street in Toronto has active traffic lanes, as well as parking lanes.  By removing parked cars from the curb lanes, we can transform “parking lanes” into active traffic lanes.  A road like King St., for example, almost doubles its capacity when parked cars are removed — all without paving a single additional square metre of road.  Recognizing this, City Council recently voted to extend “no parking” hours on major streets.  In doing so, they created more peak-hours capacity.  Removing parking altogether would further increase the road’s capacity on a 24/7 basis.  Soknacki’s plan makes sense.

Of course, the increase in capacity could quickly be undone if we don’t find someplace for those cars to park — lest they “orbit” endlessly, eating into traffic capacity by repeatedly circling for a place to stop.  So, alternative parking solutions must be created.  This shouldn’t be as hard as it sounds.  Let’s say the average retail block has 30-40 parking spaces: 15-20 per side.  To keep retailers and local residents happy, we need to find space to park 60-80 cars every two blocks — assuming two blocks is the most we can reasonably expect someone to walk to get to their shopping or restaurant destination, or to visit a friend.

Love the idea or hate it, Soknacki got a lot of attention last week.  Can he sustain it?

The Toronto Parking Authority should look for creative solutions to high-density parking that can be built on or near major arterials where parking is eliminated.  A creative competition, perhaps, to find an innovative, multi-level parking structure that has a small footprint, looks reasonably attractive and is cost-effective.  New construction technologies exist that permit multi-storey construction with lower vertical rises — especially in garages where complex building mechanical systems aren’t required between floors.  It is possible to build a 2-4 level mini-parking garage that would not loom outrageously high over its neighbours.  Elevator systems are also used in other cities and provide high-density parking in small footprint areas.  There are a number of ways, TPA could build small structures for 60-80 cars in close proximity to retail storefronts.

To succeed, TPA would have to become much more nimble and innovative than it has been in the past.  And, it would need more capital than it has now.  One way to get that capital would be to incorporate TPA and to sell some of its shares (say not more than 49% so the city still owns the controlling interest) on public markets to raise capital — either to a partner company that can bring new management expertise, or to retail investors — average Torontonians, for example — who want to buy in to the city’s parking company.

Better Politics

Running a campaign is selling a candidate, and it’s like selling any other product.  The basic rules of marketing apply.  First you have to get the consumer’s Attention, build Interest in the product, create Desire for the product, then motivate the consumer to Action:  to go out and buy what you’re selling.  Politics is the same.

If voters haven’t heard of you, they can’t be persuaded to support you.  Soknacki started his campaign in the Attention phase with a bold, attention-getting policy: he vowed to scrap the Scarborough Subway.  He got some attention for that, but when Olivia Chow entered the race and took that on as one of her key platform planks, people stopped paying attention to Soknacki.

Soknacki then moved on to the Persuasion (Interest) phase of the campaign without completing the Attention phase.  Perhaps, he assumed he’d gotten people’s attention.  Perhaps, he’s a policy wonk who really just wants to talk ideas rather than political grandstanding.  Either way, it was a mistake.  With his parking ban idea, he may be able to correct that.

People were shocked by Soknacki’s ban.  It was covered extensively in the press.  It makes great talk radio.  And people are starting to talk about Soknacki: “Did you hear about that Soknacki guy who wants to ban parking?” “Soknacki’s crazy!” “I love Soknacki’s idea!”

Love the idea or hate it, Soknacki got a lot of attention last week.  Can he sustain it?

If he’s smart, Soknacki will continue to beat the ban publicly like a drum.  He shouldn’t talk about any other policy for a while.  No need.  This one has legs.  People love it or the hate it.  They love talking about it.  That’s what he needs right now.  Too many voters have never heard of him.  Continue pounding this drum until many of them have.  Along the way, this plank can bring die-hard cyclists and environmental nerds into Soknacki’s camp.

At the end of August, Soknacki will have to turn to the Persuasion phase.  But, there’s no point in even attempting that if 80% of voters, at least, don’t know who is by then.

The hard part for Soknacki, of course, will be mustering the discipline to continue beating a single drum — parking ban — long after he’s bored of it and it begins to sound silly.  John Tory and Olivia Chow already have people’s attention.  They’ve already entered the Persuasion phase of their campaigns.  Soknacki must resist the temptation to join them in substantive policy debates.  His job right now is to get your attention, not to persuade you to vote for him.  Politics is a numbers game.  The smart campaign recognizes that.  We’re about to see just how smart Soknacki really is.