Efficient Mosquitoes

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

Like a swarm of mosquitoes, City of Winnipeg parking commissionaires sucked $4.3 million from the wallets of downtown visitors last year. It’s no surprise downtown commerce continues to dwindle as patrons avoid the area like a low-lying swamp. Why are we doing this to ourselves?

In lieu of intelligent reform, the City appears headed in the wrong direction on parking policy. The plan, to eliminate overlaps by combining several related functions under a single municipal parking authority, sounds good in theory. The problem? It makes a bad policy more effective: the better we manage parking, the worse the economic consequences.

Policy wonks call this problem “sub-optimization”. It happens when a narrow focus on a subordinate activity within a part of the organization undermines the organization’s broader interests. It occurs in the corporate world when a subsidiary charges its sister companies more than market rates for its goods and services. The classic example in government has departments following complicated buying procedures whose delays and costs far outweigh any possible savings from bulk purchasing.

Winnipeg’s parking policy is a natural for the sub-optimization file. Rush-hour parking bans and turning restrictions, designed by traffic engineers who want to maximize the speed of entry and exit from the core, make downtown driving a pain. Not only do motorists have to dig for coins to feed the ubiquitous meters but a ruthless enforcement policy subjects them to hefty fines and occasional vehicle tows and impoundment. It’s hardly surprising the parking mosquitoes have driven their hosts to the friendlier terrain of the suburban shopping malls, where parking is free.

Of the roughly $10.2 million the City gains from its parking garages, street meters and fines, the largest portion by far, $4.3 million comes from penalties. Take off the expense of operating these facilities, plus over $1.5 million in police overtime and salaries needed to harvest the fines, and it turns out the City nets only half that amount. This does not include millions in towing and impoundment fees that are levied on top of the fines. No one has ever calculated how much the bad will generated by the policy is costing downtown commerce.

Is anybody willing to bet that this small amount, about 5% of City revenues last year, is worth the PR damage? Rational avoidance of downtown accelerates the slippage in real estate values, already hammered by rent control and Winnipeg’s over-reliance on property taxes, which penalize the natural economic advantages of high population density. Assessments have fallen like a stone in the core, and further analysis would show that property tax collections have declined far more than the take from parking.

The dollars involved are small relative to the payback from a downtown renaissance of the sort now underway in many American cities. But we seem to be moving in the opposite direction. Recently a hilarious, but evidently serious, proposal was floated to raise an extra $100,000 a year by calibrating the parking meters to allow 48 minutes for the same money that now buys an hour. That’s almost comical, like trying to breed a speedier mosquito.

Rather than creating an agency that risks harming the community’s wider interest more efficiently, the City needs to rethink the parking-authority idea and take a more thoughtful view of traffic and parking-related functions in the core. Imagine if the City were to substantially abandon the parking-revenue business and remove the dead hand of the traffic planners. Most rush-hour parking bans and the notorious turning restrictions would disappear, freeing our large police staff from the task of levying traffic fines. It may take day-workers an extra minute to flee the core area in their vehicles, but the trade-off would confer the benefit of a less disrupted downtown.

Parking meters would return to their original role as a mechanism for encouraging turnover in high-traffic areas, not as a revenue source to be efficiently mined. A large portion of the 2,386 metered spaces would be converted into free two-hour zones to deter on-street parking by downtown workers. And why not sell cheap permits that allow year-round street parking to residents off downtown’s beaten track? This would draw life back into the area and encourage what will certainly become a chic residential neighbourhood when rent control finally goes.

The final element in a more dynamic approach would be to recycle the capital tied up in low-return city parking garages at the Centennial Library, the Civic Centre and Winnipeg Square. These could be sold for millions, with revenues used to create more free parking spaces around the core. This would upset the transit lobby but cars are the most convenient and flexible transport mode, the people’s choice. We would give up a small amount of money from the carpark business in favour of a much more competitive and hospitable downtown.

City councillors should think about the big picture before risking creating a more efficient, truly sub-optimal, tax collector disguised as a parking authority. Call off the mosquitoes: there are already enough bad policies bleeding the downtown to death.