Smoother traffic is only the beginning: John Tory’s parking crackdown will change the way Toronto works
Attention Toronto drivers: your heaping helping of schadenfreude is ready. For all the times you’ve ever been stuck behind an illegally parked vehicle, asking aloud why doesn’t someone fine that jerk and tow him away?, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for: the moment when misfortune befalls them all, all at once, for the benefit of your drive home.
Mayor John Tory’s tag-and-tow offensive against illegally parked cars in the downtown core is now into its second week, ticketing and impounding any vehicle that parks illegally and blocks traffic during peak hours. The first week was a social media delight, as dozens of people, notably including Toronto Police Constable Clint Stibbe, snapped and posted photos of the towaways, many of them delivery trucks. Stibbe’s Twitter feed in particular—@TrafficServices—was a rousing perp parade of company logos winched to the boom, including FedEx, Coca-Cola, Canada Post, Canadian Linen and Uniform Service, and every shredding service under the sun: Iron Mountain, Recall Document Solutions, and AMJ Shredding. The traffic sting has ensnared a surprisingly broad variety of businesses, including Joe Warmington favourite Drain City, whose work consists of sucking up and hauling away used deep-fryer grease from downtown restaurants.
Some media outlets have been calling the mayor’s initiative a “blitz,” but Tory doesn’t want anyone to think this is a temporary measure that will disappear as quickly as it arrived. “The new normal” is how the mayor’s staff likes to describe the situation, and it’s about more than traffic. It’s a long overdue shift in the city’s metabolism, and so far Tory and his staff seem to be the only ones who’ve grasped just how far-reaching it will prove to be.
Two weeks in, new normalcy is finally sinking in for delivery businesses. “This is a huge issue for us,” says Darren Bull, the Director of Operations for AMJ Shredding. When the company had one of its trucks towed away last week, it was enough to make management reconsider the structure of the entire operation. The truck cost $900 to retrieve, but arguably the bigger loss came from the appointments missed and revenue forgone due to time spent in the pound. Bull is certainly not willing to risk repeated towings.
As a stopgap measure, AMJ Shredding has doubled the number of staff in each truck to two: one to go up and collect documents for shredding, the other to drive the truck around the block while waiting for his colleague to return. Meanwhile, Bull says, “We are rethinking everything, and we are calling all our customers. Scheduling is going to be very different in the near future. We are probably going to have to move to a night shift.”
His competitors are surely calling and visiting their customers too, and none of the conversations will be especially pleasant, because each one is going to be, in one way or another, about who will bear the burden of this problem. For many businesses, coping with the new normal could mean hiring more staff during off-peak hours to handle pickups and deliveries. Many of them don’t have any evening or night staff at all right now.
If those businesses want to stay downtown, they will have to adjust. As I parsed the logos of the offenders last week, one infuriating question rose to the surface: What are any of these trucks doing anywhere near downtown during rush hour? The services they offer are all forms of provisioning or disposal. It’s scut work, the back-room support that allows the more important, economic-engine-of-the-nation work to proceed efficiently. In many cases there’s no good reason any of it should be done during daylight hours, period.
Can hospitals and hotels not receive their fresh linens overnight? If your store sells Coke until 11 p.m., does your delivery really have to happen between 7 and 9 a.m.? Why is rush hour the only window of opportunity for carting away spent grease? As for the work that does need to happen during rush hour, why is it still being done in cars and trucks? Bike couriers can handle more of it than they currently do, and given the constant gridlock downtown, they can handle it faster than their four-wheeled competitors.
The only reason it has been viable for any of these businesses to operate during peak hours is because the city has, until now, turned a blind eye to them. The non-enforcement of parking restrictions has been so widespread and so dependable for so long, it has worked its way into the business-model foundations of pretty much every vehicle delivery service in the core. The whole thing was a false economy, built upon the certainty that the city would sell out all its surface commuters for the sake of somebody’s delivery.
Now that the city has done away with that infuriating arrangment (it’s hard to fathom how Torontonians put up with it for as long as they did), an expanded night shift is the logical solution. Urbanists and their sympathizers, including me, are obsessed with maximizing the city grid’s throughput by improving public transit, but we rarely consider the lengthy tracts of surplus road space that appear every day between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. It only makes sense to shift as much travel as possible to those hours.
To judge from Manhattan’s experience, all involved would be happier as a result. New York’s off-hour delivery program had, as of 2013, enlisted more than 150 restaurants and retailers in a scheme to schedule deliveries between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In many cases, businesses have controlled the cost of the shift by giving couriers keys, allowing them to drop off goods and lock up afterwards. Businesses have found that the shift has allowed staff to focus more on customers during regular business hours. Drivers find they make better time in every way: they can drive faster, park with ease, and deliver goods unimpeded. The average time spent at each location has declined from 100 minutes to 30 minutes. Toronto would surely see similar benefits from a more active overnight shift.
When and if the change happens, it will affect every downtown operation that accepts daytime deliveries, which is pretty much all of them. Give John Tory credit: he knew that enforcing traffic regulations would have seismic repercussions for an entire industry, and he did it anyway. All those awkward conversations now underway, about how businesses and institutions and provisioners and haulers will shift their operations to off-peak hours? In every one of those meetings, the mayor is being cursed for screwing with their convenient arrangements. Only cities of a certain size and influence—and of a certain congestion level—can flex muscle like this, and even then it takes a mayor willing to flex it.