Free parking helps keep councillors driving to city hall


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Most city councillors, like the majority of Winnipeggers, drive to work, and those commutes help make driving the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

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Most city councillors, like the majority of Winnipeggers, drive to work, and those commutes help make driving the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the city.

Despite the city’s plan to slice emissions in the coming decades, one city hall perk makes it hard for councillors to abandon their cars — a free parking pass.

Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) says the option of free parking makes it easy to decide to drive to work.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface) says the option of free parking makes it easy to decide to drive to work. Allard hasn't used a free parking pass since 2018, opting for other modes of transportation instead.

“One of the biggest inconveniences of commuting to work downtown is finding that parking spot,” he said. “So not only is it tempting from a financial perspective, because you already have a spot paid for, but also you have the convenience of knowing that there’s going to be a spot for you as soon as you pull in.”

But Allard is an exception, having relinquished his free parking pass in 2018.

In January that year, Allard, who chairs the public works committee that oversees transit, pledged to take the bus to work every day for a month to get a better understanding of the bus system. When the month came to an end, he decided to say goodbye to his parking pass and instead walk, bike and take the bus as much as possible.

“I kind of fell in love with the mode shift and the bus and, using different modes of transport in my everyday life,” he said. “And I found that it didn’t make sense anymore for me to have this parking spot because I wasn’t using it.”

A Free Press survey of city councillors found Coun. Ross Eadie (Mynarski), who is blind, is the only other councillor who has turned down the parking pass. Though several councillors who responded to the survey said they try to take transit, walk or bike when possible, most indicated the nature of their work, which often requires travelling to meetings across the city in addition to time spent at city hall, makes it hard to give up driving.

“Much of my ward that requires my attention to attend to are in areas with poor public transit supports,” said Coun. Shawn Nason (Transcona) in an email.

“Demands of the job sometimes make it necessary to bring (a) car in order to attend multiple meetings or events off-site, which is expected of councillors,” said Coun. Brian Mayes (St. Vital).

Couns. Jeff Browaty, Kevin Klein, John Orlikow, Vivian Santos and Jason Schreyer, as well as Mayor Brian Bowman, did not respond.

Under city policy, the mayor and councillors are offered a free, dedicated parking space near city hall, an annual surface parking card and a monthly $550 transportation allowance, which is to be used for mileage expenses or taxis.

Many more city workers receive parking passes. Researchers at submitted a freedom of information request to the city and found nearly 400 city employees are offered parking passes.

The city offers employees the option of a partially subsidized monthly bus pass — called the eco-pass — which allows staff to take the bus at a 30 per cent discount. Between 250 and 300 city staff purchase an eco-pass each month, the city said in a statement.

While parking for free at work has long been considered a business standard nationwide, some advocates suggest the time has come to rethink the policy and instead give incentives for low-emission commuter options.

All told, residential vehicle use makes up 32 per cent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to 2011 City of Winnipeg data. That’s in part because more than three-quarters of Winnipeggers drive to work, and about 80 per cent of those trips are made alone, according to Statistics Canada.

By contrast, 16 per cent of Winnipeggers commute on the bus, and just seven per cent use active transportation.

Mel Marginet is part of the sustainable transportation team at the environmental non-profit organization Green Action Centre.

Over the past few decades, she said “it’s become sort of ingrained to offer free parking for employees,” be it through subsidized parking passes or big on-site parking lots. But at the Green Action Centre, Marginet’s team hopes to encourage businesses to do things differently.

“There’s no such thing as free parking,” she said. “The message that that sends is that you’re considered an employee of value if you’re driving to work; if there isn’t something of equal value to those who are not driving to work, I would question why.”

Parking reimbursement for municipal staff cost the city $425,297 in 2021 alone, city staff said in an email. By contrast, the city has spent $27,539 on its share of the eco-pass program in the last three months. There is no option to transfer the value of the parking pass to other modes of transportation.

Allard said he would prefer to see the city — and other employers — offer a more flexible transportation benefit to staff. Offering a commuting budget, for example, that could be applied to transit, bikes, or parking if employees so choose, would ensure all commuting options are fairly compensated.

“Flexibility would allow for Winnipeggers to do what we hope to be able to encourage them to do by providing transportation options, whether that’s taking the bus, biking, walking, being passengers in vehicles, taking up the occasional car-share,” he said.

At the Green Action Centre, flexibility is a priority. Staff are offered transit passes or an equivalent dollar value for other modes of transportation. For some, that money is spent on parking, but others choose to spend the benefit on bike maintenance, running shoes, and other means of getting to work.

Ultimately, changing the way people get to and from work is about interrupting long-held habits and behaviour, Marginet said. With gas prices on the rise and a pandemic prompting the restructuring of the workday, Marginet said people are ready to start rethinking their daily commute.

“You have so many people for whom the price to fill up their gas tank has more than doubled in a very short amount of time — just as they’re being expected to go back to work and go back to doing all of the in-person things. It’s really kind of hitting people just the incredible personal cost of this,” she said.

Statistics Canada shows the average price of gas jumped 43 per cent in the last year. With Canadians dedicating almost 20 per cent of their spending to transportation in 2019, the costs of daily driving are set to keep rising.

“It would be very disappointing to not encourage or reward employees who are making a healthier, more sustainable, climate friendly choice,” Marginet said.

“If you’re offering a privilege to people who drive, you should at least be offering something of equal value, or perhaps more value, if you want to look at getting your employees to shift their mode of travel.”

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers

Julia-Simone Rutgers is a climate reporter with a focus on environmental issues in Manitoba. Her position is part of a three-year partnership between the Winnipeg Free Press and The Narwhal, funded by the Winnipeg Foundation.

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