December 17, 2017

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Applying the parking brakes

Making things tougher for downtown commuters is crucial to creating a better downtown experience for all, urban experts believe

Lyle Stafford prepares an americano as a passerby knocks on the door to inquire if his Joe and Lily café is open.

It’s not. Stafford is in just long enough to clean the floor and conduct a quick interview one Sunday morning in November. Yet the inquiry provides a key insight into Stafford’s thoughts about downtown, about traffic and about parking.

“When people are on foot or on bike, they’re coming into my shop,” he said. “When they’re in cars, they’re not.

“It’s a proven phenomenon.”

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Lyle Stafford prepares an americano as a passerby knocks on the door to inquire if his Joe and Lily café is open.

It’s not. Stafford is in just long enough to clean the floor and conduct a quick interview one Sunday morning in November. Yet the inquiry provides a key insight into Stafford’s thoughts about downtown, about traffic and about parking.

"When people are on foot or on bike, they’re coming into my shop," he said. "When they’re in cars, they’re not.

Coffee shop owner Lyle Stafford: 'They need to wake up. Do you know what $2 buys you in Toronto or Vancouver? About 20 minutes.'

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Coffee shop owner Lyle Stafford: 'They need to wake up. Do you know what $2 buys you in Toronto or Vancouver? About 20 minutes.'

"It’s a proven phenomenon."

Conventional wisdom, at least in Winnipeg, holds that the key to a successful downtown is making it easy for suburbanites to drive downtown and park wherever they wish.

Conventional wisdom, it appears, is wrong.

A look at cities suggests abundant parking is not a benefit, but rather a bane, to a successful downtown, which experts say is vital to the economic well-being of all parts of a city.

"There are very few things more important to a city’s and a suburb’s success than a vibrant downtown," says Brent Toderian, a city planning consultant and president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. "That’s true whether an individual ever comes downtown or not."

Strong downtowns attract private-sector investment, and it’s exactly what a company such as Amazon seeks when it is searching for a location for HQ2, Toderian says. A strong core area is high on the list for many companies seeking to expand or relocate.

"Investing in a strong downtown outperforms other civic investments when it comes to economic development."

Stafford, who opened in the main floor of the Sport Manitoba building on Pacific Avenue about three years ago, is a perfect example, and he shakes his head at the way this city’s downtown caters to suburban drivers and their demands for cheap or free parking.

"They need to wake up. Do you know what $2 buys you in Toronto or Vancouver? About 20 minutes," he says.

Toderian, an urban planner who has worked with cities around the world — from Auckland to Helsinki to Vancouver — says aside from the dead spaces created by surface parking lots, an over-reliance on parking and automobile traffic robs downtown areas of foot traffic, negates investment in public transit and denies citizens a choice in how to get downtown.

"You’re left with the car as the only viable choice," he says.

Toderian says downtowns do need some parking, but it has to be strategic and managed well to maximize efficiency.

"Every great place has a parking problem, and you can often do great damage to a place by trying to solve the wrong parking problem," he says. "The wrong parking problem is the theory there’s not enough parking. The more common parking problem is there’s too much."

Toderian says the goal for cities should be underground parking, but it should be municipally owned and managed with downtown revitalization in mind.

"That’s so you can manage it, manage it after hours and make sure it’s not dedicated parking where you have empty stalls just waiting to be used for a small amount of time," he says. "You can have scramble parking, which offers more efficient usage in a smaller space."


500

0

2500 m

Parking's footprint

Comparing downtown parking in major Canadian cities (surface lots and parkades)

Illustration: Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press

Data source: Open Streets Map

 

 

Winnipeg

Edmonton

Calgary

Montréal

Toronto

Ottawa

Vancouver

Comparing downtown parking in major Canadian cities (surface lots and parkades)

Illustration: Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press

Data source: Open Streets Map

0

2500 m

Winnipeg

Calgary

Edmonton

Montréal

Vancouver

Ottawa

Toronto


Loren Remillard, president of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, does not dispute the inverse relationship between vibrant downtowns and over-abundant parking. "Are we in favour of a compact, dense, walkable urban core? Absolutely."

Getting there, however, is a different story.

Remillard notes cities that have restricted surface lots also have high demand for commercial real estate, something that is only now starting to emerge in Winnipeg.

The chamber is advocating for changes to promote foot traffic, says president Loren Remillard.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The chamber is advocating for changes to promote foot traffic, says president Loren Remillard.

Montreal, for instance, taxes downtown surface parking lots based on their potential as developed property, not as vacant land.

"Montreal can do that because the owner knows if he develops the property, he’s going to be able to fill it," Remillard said.

Such a taxation plan for Winnipeg is a good goal, but the city isn’t ready for it just yet, he said.

The chamber is lobbying for changes to the city’s parking policies, however, particularly changes designed to improve foot traffic. Adding hours to metered parking rules — so it’s no longer free and unlimited after 5:30 p.m. — is an idea to improve parking churn, so that someone can’t park all evening and must free up that space for others.

It’s a policy change the chamber’s downtown members are demanding despite the apparent contradiction, Remillard said. When such policies result in parking spaces having to open up every two hours, businesses can see more vehicle traffic and there’s more foot traffic, since drivers can no longer tie up a spot for hours attending a sporting event or concert.

 
 

The city recently announced a $1 per hour increase in the cost of on-street parking downtown, a move that comes with the blessings of the Downtown Business Improvement Zone.

Restaurants represent one sector that’s in favour of the idea, as turning blocks of city streets into parking lots after 5:30 serves to discourage customers from visiting.

Both intiatives — a rate hike and additional hours for metered parking — are designed to move longer-term parkers off the street and into structured parking, leaving more parking available for short-term parkers, such as those eating at a restaurant or accessing a service such as dry cleaning, tailoring or personal grooming services. They also serve to improve the business case for what Toderian calls "strategic" parking.

Parking is strategic in a number of ways, Toderian explains: how it is priced, where it is located and how it is managed. Locating parking next to a transit hub or near a destination is a strategic location. Pricing it with the viability of other forms of mobility in mind, to make it expensive enough people will consider transit or walking or even a taxi, is another strategy.

Finally, managing it to obtain the maximum parking efficiency for the space used is the last piece of that puzzle. Outlawing, or at least minimizing, "reserved" spaces is one strategy, making the entire parkade scramble parking.

"Reserved spaces are usually assigned to the highest-ranking individuals in an organization, and they typically sit empty for long periods of time. Scramble parking can increase parking efficiency by about 20 per cent," he says.

"If you’re at all casual about any one of those, if you’re just shrugging your shoulders and saying, ‘Well, what do people want?’ instead of trying to achieve your public policy objectives, then you’re missing out."

When he was the manager of city centre planning in Calgary, he oversaw implementation of rules governing downtown development that included parking. Specifically, the city outlined a maximum amount of parking a developer could provide on site, and required developers to pay the city cash in lieu of parking, which the city then used to build parking according to its requirements.

He applauds initiatives by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce and Downtown BIZ. Both the $1 increase and request to extend metered parking hours represent sound urban planning thinking.

"Parking should never be free and never be without a time limit," Toderian said. "It’s not just about revenue, it’s about supporting your downtown retailers and your traffic situation."

According to a city spokeswoman, changes to metered parking rules require council approval, and it’s not something the Winnipeg Parking Authority is considering now.

On-street parking (not limited to downtown)

Click to Expand

High-demand zones

  • paystations: 142
  • Stalls: 765
  • Rates: $2/hr, 2-hr time limit

Hospital zones

  • paystations: 69
  • Stalls: 542
  • Rates: HSC/St. B $2/hr, 4-hr time limit

Low-demand zones

  • paystations: 369
  • Stalls: 2,505
  • Rates: $1/hr, 2-hr time limit

Source: City of Winnipeg

Architect Brent Bellamy, chairman of downtown development advocacy CentreVenture Development, doesn’t mince words when asked about parking.

"Winnipeg certainly has a parking problem. Probably the worst in Canada, maybe equal to Edmonton, but certainly in the top two," he says.

"No downtown can be healthy with too much surface parking. It is a direct relationship."

For Bellamy, the issue goes beyond parking to the issue of traffic flow.

"Successful downtowns are built for people, not traffic," he says. "How can a downtown be commercially vibrant if its main focus is to funnel cars out of it as quickly as possible?"

As proof, he points to what he calls downtown’s key success story, the Exchange District. "Why? Because it has fewer surface parking lots than the other areas. Why isn’t it as vibrant as it could be? Because it still has too many parking lots.

"Parking is our biggest problem downtown, by far."

Architect Johanna Hurme, who is also chairwoman of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, spent her formative years in Helsinki, Finland. It’s a city of about the same population as Winnipeg with similar winter weather. Yet the two cities are on polar opposites when it comes to population density, walkability downtown and popularity of public transit.

She points to the Finnish capital, in particular, to appeal to city taxpayers’ wallets, more than anything.

"Helsinki is twice as dense and very walkable," she says. "You’re saving so much on infrastructure because you have so much less roadway and have to maintain so much less. When it comes to building fire halls, pools, libraries, you’re not having to do that on such a massive scale."

Winnipeg Coun. Janice Lukes (South Winnipeg-St. Norbert) is an unlikely champion of parking reform downtown. Her ward, the city’s largest, is all suburban, populated by people who primarily drive to everything.

Even so, she sees the benefit in making downtown far less reliant on parking, as well as safer and more efficient for pedestrians and cyclists. To her, the story starts with public transit.3

A densely populated and walkable downtown results in long-term infrastructure savings, says Johanna Hurme, chairwoman of the Winnipeg chamber.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A densely populated and walkable downtown results in long-term infrastructure savings, says Johanna Hurme, chairwoman of the Winnipeg chamber.

"We are not doing enough to tie the issues of public transit and parking together," she says.

If you want to have more people walking and fewer people driving downtown, the alternative has to be attractive, and right now, it’s not, she says.

Transit is an issue Toderian raises almost immediately, pointing to Calgary, which "realized — before my time — if you invested in public transit but continued to overbuild roads and parking, your transit wouldn’t succeed."

"They get it. This is about value-creation," he says. "The business case for this is rock-solid. If you combine smart investment in public transit with a strategic and smart parking strategy, you get ridership and you get mode-shift, which makes the entire transportation system — including the car-based system — work.

"Because if everyone was trying to drive, you literally couldn’t build enough road space."

According to the City of Winnipeg, there are 157 public surface parking lots downtown and 49 parkades. Additionally, there are 28 privately run parking lots downtown. In Calgary, by comparison, there are 16 surface lots and eight parkades.

Hurme says despite her Helsinki example, solutions must be catered to Winnipeg.

"I really wish to promote the idea there is always a smart solution to every issue," she says. "We don’t need to make other people’s lives worse."

She said a project her 5468796 Architecture team is designing now suggests even Calgary — long considered, derogatorily, as Houston of the North for its uncontrolled urban sprawl — has come to grips with the relationship between overly easy downtown parking and a successful urban centre.

She’s designing what that Calgary claims will be "the last parkade it will ever build" — so much so, the design even portends the day it’s no longer a parkade.

The design features access to natural light and — unusual for a parkade — enough separation between floors that it could be converted to residential or commercial space and still meet the building code.

Toderian, who was also an urban planner for Calgary but before the city’s recent investments, says what Calgary realized was that "if there’s a parking space, some people will sit through congestion and pay a high fee to get that parking space, but if there’s no parking space, they’ll take transit."

For that to happen here, Lukes says, Winnipeg’s transit system has to work better, particularly on important routes such as the southern transit corridor.

"The real trick... the uptake on those buses has been phenomenal, but there’s no room on those buses, the service is poor and they don’t stay on schedule," she says. "You need reliability in public transportation."

A provincial decision to end a 50-per-cent subsidy for new city bus purchases is compounding the problem, making it harder for the city to upgrade, she says.

Driving the success of public transit in Calgary, Toderian says, is a downtown parking policy that encourages the use of transit, which improves the business case for rapid transit.

"Calgary has the most significant parking-maximum policies in North America," he says. "It requires downtown parking to be built by the city, in city-owned structures, operated by the city and located well relative to the problem spots. Daytime, nighttime, it’s scramble parking for more efficiency.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"A city as pro-private sector as Calgary recognizes you have to manage parking and not let parking manage you. That’s why Calgary has the highest per-capita transit ridership — at peak hours — of any city in North America."

Stafford says a lack of reliability and inconvenient routing has stigmatized busing in Winnipeg.

"We tend to see public transit as for losers," he says.

He sees the solution as simple, but unpopular: "Gas, $1.40 a litre. Use it to subsidize transit."

High gas prices would not only encourage transit use, it would also force drivers to be more conscientious about their driving habits.

Lukes sees another solution, also unpopular: A 25-cent hike in bus fare would help pay for more buses.

She might be getting her wish: Mayor Brian Bowman’s 2018 budget includes a 25-cent hike in fares, but also curtails or ends service on 23 routes beginning in June.

How much of that fare hike will be invested back into transit remains unclear.

Hurme, despite how the change added parking spots, praises the move to back-in, angled parking on Bannatyne Avenue between Waterfront Drive and Rorie Street. The move allowed for widening the bike lane, and the concept of backing in calms traffic. That makes the sidewalk more attractive for a restaurant’s outdoor patio in summer and the cycling lane safer.

Toderian sees the change in thinking in Winnipeg’s downtown as a step in the right direction.

"Winnipeg might be turning a corner on its understanding of this," he says. "When a business-savvy city like Calgary got it, that was when we really turned a corner."

For Stafford, investing in new parking policies and transit to improve walkability is something that will repay itself down the road in lower road-maintenance costs, lower infrastructure costs and lower health-care costs.

"You can pay it forward, because now you’re not spending time in the waiting room of an ER or urgent-care centre," he says.

"Seven kilometres. That’s the distance. People who live within seven kilometres of work are the healthiest," he says. "Walking is the best thing we can do for our bodies."

Stafford lives only blocks from his café, and walks almost everywhere. He shakes his head at suburbanites who shun downtown because it’s "unsafe."

"People get off the bus and one person asks them for money and they jump back on," he says. "You got panhandled! It’s not the end of the world!"

Stafford ends the interview on a hopeful note.

He is hoping to see policies that encourage more pedestrians and cyclists and residents downtown, and says all are better for businesses than drivers who fly past on Lily Street, King Street, Main Street or Donald Street on their way to the Disraeli Freeway, Queen Elizabeth Way or the Midtown Bridge.

"Things are starting to change, but I’m a small business person. I don’t have time to wait 20 years."

kelly.taylor@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Kelly Taylor.

History

Updated on Saturday, December 2, 2017 at 9:48 AM CST: Updates headline

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