Rethinking Parking

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Collingwood
Parking in Collingwood – especially downtown – has been a contentious issue since at least the mid-1980s. Numerous studies have been done advocating a variety of answers, none of them entirely satisfactory to everyone. The factions of free versus paid parking have been warring as long as I can recall. No council has managed to fully come to grips with the issue.

To compound the issue, town staff have tended to weigh in on the side of paid parking in no small part because of the revenue it brings in, which helps offset the expenses of the bylaw department (and justifies having so many bylaw officers on staff).

As the council rep on the BIA board last term, I can say this issue continues to be debated with as much vehemence and animation today as it was 25 years ago (something the current council cannot appreciate, since it became the province’s first municipality not to put a council rep on the BIA board, thus abandoning any pretense to care about the downtown…).

On the free parking side, advocates argue that downtown businesses have to compete with malls, shopping centres and First Street restaurants that offer free parking. Paying for parking discourages consumers. And receiving a parking tickets certainly make people much less likely to shop or eat downtown. They want to encourage more people to come downtown by making their visit less stressful.

On the paid side, advocates argue that downtown business staff and residents will fill up all the spaces if parking is free, making it impossible for consumers to find a space. Paid parking discourages people from parking in one spot all day. And, they argue, it brings in revenue (although the revenue goes into the parking reserve and is not used for general expenses).

There are middle-grounders who advocate for a mix: paid parking on the main and side streets, and free in the back-street lots, or vice-versa. I personally tend towards the former, trying to encourage more traffic circulation on the main street but offering longer stays in the lots. I don’t think all of the downtown should be made free parking, but perhaps a mix of paid and free would work better.

Last term, Councillor Lloyd brought forward a plan to give out courtesy (warning) tickets, which would allow people a 20-minute overage. That way, people visiting downtown wouldn’t find themselves so easily ticketed when a shopping spree or a meal went a little over the paid time. I supported his initiative and it has proven successful. I expect he will revisit the idea of changing the parking fee structure again this term.

Reports have vacillated between saying we had enough spaces and we didn’t, sometimes wildly contradicting one another. One report sounded such dire warnings about parking demand that the town purchased two properties at St. Marie and Simcoe Streets for parking lots. Subsequent reports said the opposite: we had enough for current needs, and the new lots were superfluous. One now houses the new library and the other was sold and has a restaurant and artist studios.

But temporary parking for shoppers and staff is only one part of the picture. Businesses and residences all require parking spaces as per the zoning bylaw and Official Plan; the number of spaces depending on the type of business or residence. In some commercial zones, these policies have resulted in great, plantless, deserts of environmentally-hostile asphalt; no more than a quarter full most of the year.*

When a builder or business owner cannot provide those mandated spaces – as many downtown businesses cannot, because most of the buildings are built right out to the lot line – they have to pay a hefty cash-in-lieu fee to the town instead. That discourages new businesses and developers downtown because they are basically paying for air.

A plan to rebuild the old bingo hall on the main street went off the rails a few years ago because the cash-in-lieu costs were so high, the developer decided it was too expensive to proceed. The building remains empty, six or seven years later. And there were those at the table back then who even wanted to increase the cost per space from around $3,000 to $30,000! That would have made pretty much all downtown development prohibitively expensive.

Because I felt this was unreasonable and would only further deter downtown growth and development, I advocated successfully for a reduction in the requirement for downtown spaces and to keep the cash-in-lieu charges at a reasonably low level. I would even argue for further reductions in parking requirements downtown today, were I at the table.

But it’s not enough. We need to rethink the downtown and decide how to properly manage parking issues if we value it. And we need to rethink parking and vehicles across all parts of the town. We will never eliminate vehicles, but we might come up with more effective planning and more environmentally-conscious around them.

I think a plan recently proposed for Seattle developments might work here as well. A story in CityLab gives the details:

A new idea, presented recently to the city council, would take that parking policy a step further by requiring developers to offer new tenants a suite of alternative transport options. So instead of getting a parking spot, a resident might get a transit pass or a bike-share membership instead—a trade that, over time, should reduce parking demand and promote car-free living.

That’s a great idea. What if we extended that so every business in the downtown could be given free or seriously discounted rates for annual transit passes? Perhaps that cost could be deducted from their property taxes or BIA membership fees to encourage use. Plus every apartment – in a home or a building – should come with an annual bus pass for every occupant.

If they were provided free, the reduced wear and tear on our roads would likely pay for the cost of the passes. Or they could be purchased instead of, or against, cash-in-lieu charges.

But again, transit alone is not sufficient. What about active transportation? We do have an approved report on active transportation, but it is more theoretical than practical, and lacks a firm implementation strategy. No concrete plan was ever presented for its implementation, although money was requested in the budget without explicit use defined.

In previous terms, I argued many times for all commercial developments to be required to have bicycle racks. Unfortunately, while required now, builders are too often allowed to stuff them in places where consumers find them awkward or inconvenient to use. It’s a start, but we need more of a buy-in from staff to enforce and improve the design requirements to make malls more bicycle-friendly.

Parking lots in town are dangerous for cyclists and designed to discourage them rather than embrace alternate transportation (just try riding a bike at the mall or in any of the grocery store lots…). The active transportation plan was not fully embraced by developers and staff seem reluctant to enforce some of the urban design standards that might make such parking lots more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

There are many ideas about parking and transportation this council and staff should explore. All  we need is an advocate on council to bring this forward at the table.

~~~~~

* Parking is further restricted on many near-downtown streets, which further discourages people from coming downtown or attending downtown events. The north side of Second Street, for example, was made non-parking two terms back for several blocks west of the downtown because a single resident complained. It was done as a political favour to a supporter, without any police concern about problems ever being raised, without staff reporting any issues and despite that section of Second Street having been widened particularly to handle parking.

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