Photo: New revenue tools could make Toronto safer, healthier

(Credit: Matt Jiggins via Flickr)

By Gideon Forman and Scott Leon

This week City Manager Peter Wallace will release a report outlining potential new "revenue tools" that Toronto can use to pay for vital services such as public housing and transit. Among the most promising are a tax on alcoholic beverages and a levy on commercial parking lots. Detractors may attack these tools as cash-grabs, but before they dismiss them they should recognize these new measures could further a goal all of us support: making Toronto safer and healthier.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says a five per cent tax on alcohol sold at outlets such as the LCBO and the Beer Store could generate about $77 million annually. A levy paid by the owners of commercial — not residential — parking spaces would add at least $175 million a year. Combined, these initiatives would provide Toronto with over a quarter-billion dollars each budget cycle to fix community housing and help finance TTC operations.

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The Wellesley Institute, a Toronto-based think-tank that works to improve health equity, says lower-income residents "rely more on urban public transportation than all the other income groups." So when we put money into public transit — especially for things such as discounted low-income transit passes — we're actually fighting poverty. We're helping low-income folks search for employment, get to job interviews and eventually commute to their workplaces. (Low-income citizens often fail to gain work simply because they don't have bus fare to look for it.) A city with affordable transit has less poverty — and that means a healthier and safer city for all.

Trips on public transit are also less likely than those in cars to end in an accident. In a June 2016 report, "Safer Than You Think!", the Victoria Transport Policy Institute cites North American statistics showing "transit travel has about a tenth the traffic casualty (death or injury) rate as automobile travel." If we want to reduce the dangers of moving through the city, we need to get more people on buses, streetcars and subways.

As well, money from the revenue tools could help fund the city's new 10-year cycling-infrastructure plan, which will cost about $16 million annually. The plan includes a network of protected bicycle lanes that clearly set out a portion of the road for bikes and a portion for cars — making our streets more predictable (and safer) for all road users.

Alcohol and parking taxes could help us become healthier. The Wellesley Institute says alcohol "is a major contributor to disease, disability, and death in Toronto" and cites research showing that "increasing the price of alcohol reduces acute and chronic harm related to drinking amongst all age groups." The Wellesley Institute estimates a five per cent tax could lead to a 2.5 per cent reduction in the amount of alcohol Torontonians consume. That's not an enormous drop but because youth and heavy drinkers are especially sensitive to cost increases, the tax could be beneficial to those who need to curb their drinking most.

If parking-lot owners pass the new levy on to drivers, the latter may use the car less and walk, cycle or take transit more often. Doing so would improve their fitness. The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment says, "each additional hour spent in a car per day is associated with a 6% increase in the likelihood of obesity." Reducing automobile use also boosts air quality. Toronto Public Health says emissions from cars and trucks are the city's biggest source of local air pollution, contributing to 280 early deaths and over 1,000 extra hospitalizations a year.

There's a good deal of talk at City Hall about improving Torontonians' safety. Let's ensure this discussion takes a broad view and seeks to reduce a whole range of risks, including those from poverty, car use, alcohol abuse and pollution. If we take this wider perspective we may find revenue tools such as the alcohol tax and commercial parking levy very helpful. They provide financial incentives for healthy behaviour — consuming less liquor and driving less often — and hundreds of millions of dollars for safety-enhancing public transit.

Gideon Forman is a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. Scott Leon is a researcher with the Wellesley Institute.

June 27, 2016

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