In the late 1950s, downtown Winnipeg had a parking problem. Newly-elected Mayor Stephen Juba feared the situation was so critical, it was beginning to drive business away, and planning reports recommended governments partner with the private sector to provide new parking facilities. Far-sighted editorialists at the Free Press, meanwhile, had been calling for action as early as 1947, demanding that a system of parking lots be established downtown "in accordance to a comprehensive plan."
Over the next half century, a number of comprehensive plans came and went, and Winnipeg did a pretty good job of solving its downtown parking problem. The city established the Winnipeg Parking Authority, opened a number of publicly owned facilities, and aggressively encouraged the private sector to provide parking as well.
Of course, any city that can solve its downtown parking problem is not a healthy city. Downtown's generous supply of cheap parking created the problems of decidedly dull and seemingly dangerous streetscapes, and a lack of the physical concentration that creates dynamic business conditions. It also reinforced unreasonable expectations on the part of the motoring public, and augmented inefficient transportation patterns downtown (driving to work alone instead of taking transit, for one).
With every effort at keeping parking cheap and readily available, more residents, shoppers, and businesses left downtown. The Portage Avenue retail sector that Juba attempted to save through parking lots is practically nonexistent 55 years later.
Today, parking is still used as a way to lure people downtown, particularly to the Exchange District, which is slowly emerging as a mixed-use residential neighbourhood.
This week, it was revealed that the Parking Authority will discontinue the residential parking passes available to residents of the Exchange. At the end of August, the 130 or so people with these passes will have to park elsewhere.
While $25 for the annual pass was grossly underpriced, it seems odd to scrap it altogether rather than simply increase its price. This has caused some city hall insiders to wonder if this is part of the city administration's attempt to build public and council support for CentreVenture Development Corporation's parking plans.
In any case, ending the annual parking pass makes the city looks foolish, since it comes mere weeks after councillors tripped over themselves to approve a flimsy $7.8-million plan to, among other things, give $10,000 in forgivable loans to condo buyers in the Exchange. On one hand, residents are so badly needed in the Exchange that city hall will bribe them with cash. On the other, the neighbourhood is doing so well that residential on-street passes are not needed anywhere south of Pacific Avenue.
The reality of the state of revitalization in the Exchange is probably somewhere in the middle, but council seems averse to finding that out in quantifiable terms. Instead, it goes on whatever the general tone of CentreVenture's latest report or press release is. This ad-hoc approach to downtown policy is embarrassing to the city, and does little to instill confidence in would-be buyers and investors in the Exchange District.
While many believe that new parkades will relieve parking pressures in the Exchange, this is a false hope. More parking spaces do not meet demand, they increase it. In the long run, more parkades ensure automobile storage remains a major land use, at the expense of land that can be used for housing, commerce, or public amenities.
The only way to gradually impact parking demand is to raise prices. According to one business owner in the heart of the east Exchange, on-street parking turnover in front of his store has improved significantly since daytime meter rates doubled a year ago. Customers that arrive by car are still there, but many of the penny-pinching office workers who parked at meters all day are now gone.
Price increases that reflect market demand will still attract motorists willing to pay more, but will also cause many people to re-think the way they get around. Managing demand more efficiently through increasing parking prices must be part of a broader effort to get regular users of downtown away from using a car. The City needs to get serious about making transit, cycling, walking, and car-sharing viable options for both downtown workers and residents.
The cost of parking spots in new residential developments should be unbundled from the cost of the unit. This way, buyers make more informed choices, and downtown living become more affordable for those who choose not to keep a car.
Rather than spend $5 million to build a parkade on James Avenue, the City could find ways to better utilize existing lots, or convert some of the Exchange's outdated loading zones into metered spaces.
One thing is certain, the Exchange cannot meet current parking expectations while also becoming a great neighbourhood that more people will want to live and walk around in. After more than fifty years, maybe it's time to give up on plans to fix downtown's parking problem, and instead focus on solving its other problems.
Robert Galston has written on urban issues since 2005. He is entering the Master of City Planning program at the University of Manitoba this September.