Torstar News Service Mayoral candidate David Soknacki canvassing in Riverdale near Broadview and Danforth in Toronto on April 23, 2014

Let’s give it up for mayoral candidate David Soknacki.

In a mayoral election where the leading candidates seem to be all about playing it safe, Soknacki has gone out and proposed something bold. He wants to eliminate on-street parking on major roads in the downtown core.

Reducing on-street parking in the downtown core is way overdue. Like it or not, Toronto opted to make a big investment in on-street transit when council ordered new streetcars— more than $1 billion. And with that investment comes a responsibility to ensure that our expensive new vehicles are able to effectively move people. That means looking at whether we really need to devote a lane of road space on routes like King or Queen to on-street parking. The same question needs to be asked along routes with frequent buses, or along corridors that could use a bit more room for cyclists.

Retailers will gnash their teeth at any idea of reducing parking, but the tangible benefits of on-street parking seem dubious to begin with.

Studies have shown that business owners greatly overestimate the percentage of their customers that arrive by car. A report by the Toronto Cycling Think & Do Tank cites survey data that showed retailers in the Annex believed 20 per cent of customers arrived at their stores by car. The actual number? 10 per cent. In Bloor West Village, merchants said 40 per cent of their customers were motorists. The measured percentage was again half that: 20 per cent. In both cases, retailers effectively overstated the importance of parking by 100 per cent.

Meanwhile, in Halifax, a report from Joshua de Jong at the Dalhousie University School of Planning found that less than 30 per cent of all on-street parking on that city’s Arigcola Street was used by business employees, not customers, and “customers who arrive by foot or bicycle on average visit more frequently and spend more money than those who drive.”

You could argue that these studies were too limited in scope and underplay the importance of parking in some areas of downtown Toronto, but the fundamental question isn’t whether on-street parking contributes some value to businesses. It’s whether that value is greater than the economic and social benefit that would come from improved transportation along major corridors. My bet? It doesn’t even come close.

Soknacki’s move to axe on-street parking shouldn’t be taken as a panacea. If the removal of on-street parking doesn’t come as part of a coordinated plan to improve streetcar and bus service, while also better accommodating cyclists and pedestrians, all we’ll get is more gridlock. Induced demand is a jerk like that.

But Soknacki deserves credit for recognizing that the status quo isn’t working, and proposing a fix — even if that fix won’t be popular with everybody. It’s exactly the kind of bold thinking we should expect from people who want to lead a growing city.

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