War on the Car? Hardly.

Posted on December 3, 2010

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I haven’t posted in about a month because I’ve been busy with a few other truly terrible things. I grew a truly terrible moustache for Movember, but strictly speaking that did not affect my ability to write this blog. More relevantly, I successfully completed National Novel Writing Month by writing 52,251 words of truly terrible fiction. Maybe later I’ll edit it and make it slightly less terrible but for now I’d rather spend my writing time giving my blog some much-needed love.

The trip to the Rally to Restore Sanity was a lot of fun, even though we arrived late for the actual rally. I might upload a few photos later this week. Today, however, I have something a bit more interesting to talk about. When I announced that I was going to the rally, I framed it in the context of Rob Ford’s election. I should probably admit that this was a slightly shameless attempt to draw attention to my trip in light of the liberal outcry over Ford’s election. Ford’s election remains the worst thing to happen to Toronto since the G20 police abuses, but I think I ought to look at the bright side for a change: Rob Ford is a gift to lefty political bloggers that keeps on giving. I suspect that he will generously provide me with plenty of material over the next four years.

Case in point: Ford had hardly taken office before he declared that he will be canceling Transit City in favour of extending the Sheppard subway line to Scarborough, and turning the Scarborough LRT line into a subway. His stated reason: “The war on the car is over“. I’m going to avoid defending transit city. Ford’s plans are indeed idiotic, but Transit City has already been well defended elsewhere. Instead, I am going to focus on the specific sound-byte that Ford gave to justify his decision. Ford supposes that there is some kind of war on cars, in which transit city is a kind of enemy action which demands counterattack. Let’s examine that proposition, shall we?

Rob Ford’s most well-known campaign slogans are “Stop the Gravy Train” and “Respect the Taxpayers”. Based on these, I think it’s fair to say that Ford’s priorities in civic reform are mainly fiscal in nature. Ford’s supposed war on cars should, therefore, be apparent in the city’s finances. Hoping to find evidence of it, I did a little bit of homework with the Toronto 2010 Municipal Budget*. If Rob Ford was right, then it would make sense that there would be massive financial punishment of cars and drivers. Municipal fuel surcharges, excessive income from speeding tickets, toll road revenue, stuff like that. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found the following data:

Transportation-related expenses:

  • Transportation Services: $122.87 million
    • $102,982.2 million for roadway services
    • $32,672.3 million for roadside services
    • $41,923.4 million for traffic and safety services
    • $15,460.7 for infrastructure management
  • Parking: $68.375 million
  • Snow Removal: $60 million
  • Total: $599.485 million**

Transportation-related revenue:

  • Personal vehicle tax: $57.4 million
  • User fees coming from drivers: $3.5 million
    • 3,495,207 from Transportation Services
    • 4,300,000 from police (Assuming that all of this money comes from traffic tickets)

  • Total: $60.9 million

So automobiles earn the city only 10.16% of the total amount they cost the city. The rest of the money to support the cars that drive on Toronto streets comes from property taxes, non-transportation related user fees, the massive provincial subsidy to the city***, and a whole lot of other sources of revenue into which people will contribute whether they own cars or not. I should point out, in the interest of fairness, that I am neither an accountant nor an economist. My analysis of the situation could be a bit off. I can’t imagine, however, that I would somehow miss $540 million worth of revenue, or 5% of the city’s budget, that comes from drivers.Financially speaking, Toronto drivers do not pull their own weight, and the politicians that cater to them do not respect taxpayers. There is no war on the car. There is a massive subsidy on the car.

While we’re on the subject, let’s look at some of the other ways in which the city disproportionately serves the needs of drivers.

  • Transportation services maintains 5600 kilometers of roads, but only 100 of those have bike lanes on them.
  • Cars and the roads necessary to accommodate them take up a tremendous amount of space. This means a lot in a crowded area like downtown Toronto.
  • The Toronto Waterfront is unlikely to be effectively revitalized with the Gardiner expressway smack-dab in the middle of everything: Eyesore
  • More seriously, last year Toronto saw 41 traffic-related fatalities. 31 of them were pedestrians.
  • Smog produced by cars contributes to air pollution, which has significant negative health effects on the city’s population.
  • To say nothing of the ethical costs of contributing to climate change, and the economic and human damage associated with it worldwide.

So where does this leave us? It would seem that, despite the fact that car infrastructure necessitates sacrificing some of the city’s best land to expressways, despite the fact that cars take up an enormous amount of urban land, and despite the fact that cars have a nasty tendency to kill people, the Toronto municipal government has been directing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue into establishing and maintaining the necessary infrastructure and services to facilitate their use. To put it another way, drivers are the ultimate destination for one of the most loaded gravy trains that departs from city hall. If David Miller’s status quo is a war on the car, then I hate to see what Rob Ford’s peace would look like.

*A note about this source: Most of the information is on scattered PDF downloads, so I cannot link every fact. Using the search function, however, it is pretty easy to confirm my findings if you are so interested.

**I am being conservative with this estimate. One glaring transportation budget line I have left out is that of the police services. With an annual budget of $605.07 million, the police are the city’s largest expenditure. They don’t break down their budget by department, but their services are listed as follows (emphasis mine):

Police operational services: Marine Unit, Mounted and Police Dog Services, the Emergency Task Force, the Public Safety and Emergency Management Unit, Traffic Services, Parking Enforcement, Court Services, the Communications Centre and Communications Services

Police detective services: Homicide, Hold-Up, Sex Crimes, Fraud, Intelligence, Drugs, Gaming, Organized Crime, Proceeds of Crime, Forensic Identification, Fugitive, Guns and Gangs, Auto Theft, Cargo Theft, Repeat Offender Parole Enforcement and Bail and Parole Reporting

Two of the seven operational services and one of the seventeen detective services have to do explicitly with things that would not be necessary if not for cars. As I said before, the police have not itemized their expenditures by service division, and I am not going to pull a number out of my ass to account for the costs of these departments. Keep in mind, however, that these are also significant financial costs of the automobile in Toronto.

***I recognize that the provincial subsidy also contains money collected directly from drivers (the fuel tax, the gas tax, and fees from the Ministry of Transportation), but these revenue streams only amount to $4.05 billion-less than ten times the difference between Toronto’s car-related expenses and car-related revenue . That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that they have to pay for all the roads, highways, and traffic cops in the province, to say nothing of the costs of licensing and subsidies to other municipalities. I think it is safe to say that drivers do not cover their costs to the city through provincial fees associated with their cars.

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