In some Canadian cities, disability permit holders must pay to park. But that’s not the case in cash-strapped T.O.Budget-strained Toronto loses thousands of dollars in revenues every day because the province-issued accessible parking permit grants holders free parking.
Day after day, eight hours a day, a black Mercedes B200 sits on downtown Dalhousie St., just south of Shuter, next to a half-empty parking lot.
Sometimes it’s in the metered area, where it costs $2.50 an hour.
But there’s no meter slip on the dash.
Sometimes, it’s in the no-parking zone.
But it never gets a ticket.
That’s because this Mercedes has a blue-chip free parking pass, the province-issued blue-and-white accessibility permit, which denotes that the holder has a “measurable and observable” medical condition that “severely limits his or her mobility.”
“I have a problem, the knee. I had surgery,” Tat-Wei Leung tells the Star, after acknowledging that he parks his Mercedes in the same spot every day and then heads a block down toward Queen St., where he works as a jeweller. Leung would only give his first name, but the Star was able to find his full name by putting a trace on his licence plate.
Toronto is just about the only major Canadian metropolis where Ontario’s 557,000 accessible parking permit (APP) owners have unlimited free parking almost anywhere on city streets at any time (limitations include no stopping zones and fire hydrants).
In Montreal, disability permit holders must pay like everybody else, although they do have designated spaces. Same in Calgary.
Three years ago, after two decades of free parking, Winnipeg started making disabled permit holders pay.
Other cities, such as Edmonton and Vancouver, have time limits on free parking.
Leung concedes that his permit saves him considerable cash: $2.50 an hour times eight hours times five days a week times four weeks a month equals $400.
“I just follow the government,” he says. “I would pay if the government asked me to pay.”
Leung is not the only APP holder who parks for free eight hours — or more — every weekday in the area bounded by Dundas and Queen Sts. to the north and south, and Bond and Victoria Sts. to the east and west.
Over the past few weeks, the Star has tracked the makes and plates of dozens of cars in the neighbourhood.
Traces on them reveal many of these people drive in from the 905, which means they don’t contribute to Toronto’s tax coffers.
There’s the Kia Amanti, which sometimes takes up two parking spaces and whose owner walks blocks away.
The white van registered to a Mississauga construction company.
The SUV that belongs to a local pawnshop owner who stands behind the counter all day, often sauntering out to shoot the breeze with a neighbouring storekeeper.
The BMW owned by a high-heeled and walking woman.
And then there’s the Bentley, driven by a diamond merchant.
“It’s a combination (of my heart condition) and my security,” explains Serko Mikaelian, standing outside his store, where his luxury car is in a no-parking zone. “It’s only a temporary park. I usually send the boys who work for me to go and park.”
During two weeks of observation, the Star spotted his Bentley parked in the area without a parking-meter slip on the dash four times.
“Permanent” or blue-and-white APPs are issued gratis for a five-year period. To qualify, people must be dependent on another person or crutches, a cane or a wheelchair in order to walk. Or they must suffer from severe lung or cardiovascular disease. Physicians, nurse practitioners, chiropractors, physiotherapists and podiatrists are among those who may certify an APP application.
True, St. Michael’s Hospital is in the neighbourhood, but on average more than 50 cars with accessibility permits are parked for free in this area daily, and the Star observed dozens that did not move from morning until night.
The Star has photographed many drivers parking, putting an APP on their dash and then walking away, passing multiple metered spaces and parking lots. One man, carrying an apparently heavy briefcase, hurried four blocks along Shuter, went through the Eaton Centre and disappeared near city hall.
“There’s no room for me to park,” complains 82-year-old Ludwig Ryl as he idles his van, blocking a driveway by the Bond St. hospital entrance while waiting to pick up his wife.
He has witnessed perfectly ambulatory people taking up precious spaces.
In 2007, the Star did an extensive investigation of a similar situation in Yorkville.
That’s when there were about 470,000 permits in Ontario, a number that seemed high even to then minister of transportation Donna Cansfield.
She admitted at the time that the system had “some holes in it.”
Indeed: about 4,400 permits belonged to centenarian drivers, although Statistics Canada had registered some 1,700 people in Ontario aged 100 and over back then.
But little appears to have changed.
“My first thought is what happens to people with legitimate disabilities, or who are doing pick-ups or drop-offs at the hospital,” says Toronto Centre-Rosedale city councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, in whose ward all these cars are parked.
“If it is true that certain people are abusing the system, there should be a thorough investigation.”
Local resident Mark Smith, a former music industry executive turned community activist, is increasingly frustrated by what he sees as revenues lost to the city, now facing what Mayor Rob Ford says is a $774 million deficit.
“On Dalhousie Street alone, the number of cars, 23 on average, parked eight hours a day, five days a week. That’s on one street.
“To me it is obvious that this is not an abilities issue, this is a cheap-ass issue.”
The Toronto Parking Authority, which manages the meters and Green P lots, reports that 43 cents of every dollar it takes in goes to the city.
Smith, who has attended council meetings where cuts to libraries and other city services have been debated, insists that he is not out to punish people who may have financial problems due to their disabilities.
In fact, he was one of the driving forces behind building disability viewing areas and access at Pride Toronto.
“Cars parked eight hours a day, five days a week, indicate to me that you have a full-time job,” he says. “Pay for your parking like everyone else has to. If a person does not have the means to pay for parking, they can get funding from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or a tax credit.”
While the permits themselves are issued by the province, it’s up to individual cities to decide how they can be used.
In Windsor, permit holders have to feed the parking meter, while Windsor has designated APP spots.
Explains Toronto bylaw coordinator Gil Golka: “With respect to where people can park if they have permits, that’s basically done by the politicians. They make the rules and decisions.”
In 2006, the province instituted unique identification codes on the permits, which allow city parking authorities to verify the holder’s date of birth and gender. That tells parking enforcement officers if someone is using, say, a grandparent’s APP.
“Many times,” says Toronto Police spokesperson Const. Victor Wong, “parking enforcement officers will call a police officer if they believe a parking permit is being used invalidly.
Alan Cairns, spokesperson for Ministry of Government Services, says that Ontario has the highest fines in Canada for misuse of accessible parking permits — penalties range from $300 to $5,000.
“The ministry will also cancel or refuse to issue a replacement permit for those who abuse the program.”
But this is not about cheating the system.
It’s about a system that cheats Toronto citizens of much-needed cash, and robs those who can’t walk of critical access.
Declares Smith: “My aim is for fairness, fair to the needs of the truly disabled and fair to the city revenues.”