Vancouver city council was unanimous Thursday in its vote to allow veterans with B.C. veteran licence plates to park their vehicles for free at meters and potentially at city facilities in a one-year trial.
But before the vote, Coun. Pete Fry and other councillors apologized to veterans for the upset created after a staff report released last week recommended against free year-round parking.
“I’m sorry for the pain that this has caused folks, to go through this and the anxiety it may have caused some of our veterans and the people who care about them,” said Fry, who successfully moved a motion to launch the trial, set to begin early next month.
Fry’s motion directs the city manager to inform the Vancouver park board and EasyPark of council’s decision, so they can consider similar actions at EasyPark lots and facilities such as community centres and parks.
In voting for the trial, council defied a staff recommendation that suggested giving free year-round parking to veterans could result in up to $2 million in lost parking revenues of the $100 million the city collects each year.
Staff also said allowing year-round free parking for veterans would be counter to the city’s long-standing transportation policy to prioritize walking, cycling, transit and shared vehicles over the use of private automobiles.
“I want to emphasize that all the staff working on this really respect what veterans have done for our country, but there’s no tie-in that we can see between that service and subsidized parking,” said Paul Storer, the city’s director of transportation, in a presentation to council before the vote.
What council heard before debate over staff’s recommendations was a chorus of criticism from veterans, including Lt.-Col. Archie Steacy, founding president of the B.C. Veterans Commemorative Association.
Steacy and others reminded council that it was them that directed staff in November 2019 to explore allowing year-round free parking for veterans — a move that was celebrated among service men and women.
To have staff suggest otherwise forced Steacy and others to speak out.
In his time before council, Steacy seized on staff’s suggestion there could be a rush of veterans to obtain the unique plates – and that family and friends would take advantage of the plates to borrow a vehicle and park for free.
“There’s no way that of the hundreds of veterans that I know – and their families – would ever have a son or daughter take the car to get free parking,” he said. “I mean that’s really the most rudest thing I’ve ever heard. Most disgusting.”
Steacy pointed out 54 veterans in Vancouver had received the unique plates this year, a small number considering council publicly directed city staff almost a year ago to consider free year-round parking.
Council heard from staff that an estimated 350 people out of 12,000 veterans in Vancouver have the plates, although veterans with plates throughout the province will now be eligible to park for free.
Steacy said approximately 57,000 veterans’ plates have been issued in B.C. since 2004, with about 35,000 no longer active because veterans have either died or are unable to drive.
City staff’s research put the number of veterans in Metro Vancouver at 48,000, with 4,900 of them with veterans’ plates. Eighty per cent of veterans are under 80 years old, which means they potentially may still be driving, Storer said.
“There are currently relatively few folks out there with veterans’ plates, but there also currently isn’t any real benefit to having the veterans’ plates,” he said, in explaining how staff predicted a $2 million loss in parking revenue. “If there was a substantial financial benefit to having them — like free parking downtown and around the city — we’d expect those numbers to increase substantially.”
Storer pointed out Montreal has no free street parking for veterans. Toronto allows free parking for veterans three days per year. Winnipeg devotes certain free parking during the year.
Staff outlined other options that council did not consider, including vehicles with veterans’ plates be exempt from meter fees on days of military battle anniversaries, create a system to provide limited free parking for low-income Vancouver veterans and serving members or offer free parking from Nov. 4 to Dec. 31.
Council heard from some veterans who drive that obtaining a veterans’ licence plate is not something every military person does, pointing out the culture of the Canadian Forces tends to have only those who served overseas apply for the plates.
But Tim Laidler, an Afghanistan veteran, said he wants to see that change.
“A veteran who signs up us a reservist, who serves part-time in the city – those same reservists were just called and sent to Quebec for COVID-19 [work],” Laidler said. “Dozens of them have now contracted COVID-19. They may not consider themselves veterans, but they’ve put their lives and their family’s lives on the line now by serving here in Canada – and that deserves the respect as a veteran.”
Canadian Forces member Heath Porritt, who did three tours in Afghanistan, broke down when talking to council about his grandfather’s service overseas during the Second World War.
“I don’t consider myself a veteran,” said Porritt, who has 30 years of service in the military. “My grandfather, who landed in Normandy, I consider him a veteran. I’m a little emotional about this because $2 million [in suggested lost parking revenue] at the end of the day is a drop in the bucket. These guys sacrificed a lot.”
Eric Mold, a 91-year-old veteran air force pilot who still drives, said walking is difficult and painful for him, noting he has two artificial knees and hips. He survived three airplane crashes.
His wife, who died six years ago, was also a veteran.
“Other local jurisdictions have found ways to incorporate free parking for their vets within their budgets,” he said. “I can’t see what the difficulty would be for a rich city like Vancouver to do the same.”
In her closing remarks, Coun. Sarah Kirby-Yung expressed her regret “for any hurt or disrespect” caused to veterans.
“It’s not the cost of the parking, it’s not the price of it, it’s the fact that their service was priceless,” Kirby-Yung said. “From my perspective, if we stop remembering and honouring them, we lose part of ourselves and our humanity. That’s to me what this is about – it is really about that signal and a sign of respect.”
Council’s move extends the goodwill of a previous council’s decision in 2007 to allow vehicles with veterans’ licence plates to be exempted from parking meter fees in the week leading up to Remembrance Day each year.
Council’s motion didn’t specify the length of time a veteran could park at a meter, but it will likely be up to three hours. There are 11,600 parking meters in the city, with some downtown charging up to $10 an hour.