Free Parking Can Boost Downtown Core

Commentary, Transportation, Peter Holle

Winnipeg’s Streets and Transportation Committee is reconsidering its parking meter policy. But the changes proposed will not reverse the declining use of downtown.

Conventional wisdom holds that cities cater too much to automobiles. Yet another task force recently suggested that the core area needs to be friendlier to pedestrians.

In fact, much of the money poured into downtown Winnipeg in recent years has been earmarked for "streetscaping"-cobbled sidewalks, quaint street lighting and parks in convenient nooks. An inexpensive transit service and all-weather interior walkways also better the lot of the pedestrian.

But consider the perils facing those who venture downtown with a car. The street system maximizes inconvenience for the driving public. Streets were truncated by Portage Place and then in 1996 by a transit mall on Graham Avenue, frustrating those who move around downtown by car.

Parking is expensive. Commercial lots abound but their high prices scare away shoppers, who park for free at suburban malls.

The City has installed 2,307 parking meters, generating a paltry $2 million a year. A bevy of commissionaires patrols the meters and issues hefty penalties. These fines significantly increase the income the City receives from the meters. Although it collects an average of $915 a year in direct revenue, each meter also brings in about $415 a year from tickets. And lots of bad will to downtown.

According to former city councillor Harvey Smith, now Director of the West End Business Improvement Zone, revenue should not be the purpose of parking meters at all. Rather, they originally functioned as a turnover device, ensuring accessibility for a maximum number of shoppers.

Most Winnipeggers own automobiles. One factor in making the downtown prosper again would see the City stop its tacit harassment policy of drivers who venture downtown. A ticketed driver remembers forever that the downtown is a hostile place to be.

Reversing that perception requires imagination. In Duluth, city officials experimented with free downtown parking between September, 1995 and March, 1996. Merchants there believe that policy reversed the decline of Duluth’s core. Even after the charges were reinstated, other measures pushed the image of a user-friendly downtown:

  • Meter rates were kept low, 50 cents an hour.
  • Meters were programmed to allow a grace period of 18-20 minutes before violation flags pop up.
  • Angle parking replaced parallel parking on many streets.

These changes, on top of the six-month parking holiday, have successfully convinced the driving public that a trip downtown can be pleasant.

Edmonton, with its own downtown challenges, recently started to make parking easier:

  • Free two-hour parking on Saturdays and after 5:00 o’clock, and reduced daytime rates.
  • Extending the time limits of parking meters.
  • Relaxing the enforcement of violations, and starting a "first time warning" program.
  • Reducing parking restrictions near residences.

Contrast the spirit of these changes with proposals here. Until the last second last week, City council actually considered hiking parking meter rates to $1.25 an hour. As an alternative to higher rates, in a strange leap of logic, the Downtown Business Improvement Zone had asked the council instead to increase the number of metered stalls in the most heavily used areas. They got their wish. The parking penalty zone for visiting the core will be expanded. Go figure.

The City must regard its parking meter policy as more than a revenue pot. Downtown businesses already suffer the burden of punitive property taxes. If they are to recover their trade, increasing parking rates is not the answer.

In fact, a strong case can be made that the $3 million the City grosses from parking meters (before expenses), peanuts in a billion dollar budget, is worse than a dead loss. The City loses much more than that from falling property tax revenues because the public abandons the downtown and assessment values tumble.

Boost downtown? Consider the Duluth solution as one piece of the puzzle.

Free parking.