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Should downtown parking be (partly) free?

I’ve been harboring a heretical thought in the wake of spending some time in the Bay Area this June: maybe cities of a certain size do better if they make at least some free parking available for downtown shoppers.

Stopping in Palo Alto often during my Bay Area visit, I finally figured out that Palo Alto owns a parking garage or two …and that the first two hours of parking are free.

Bear with me, gentle reader, if you think free parking is a gimme, for you should know that I live in a city renowned for what we locals lovingly (that’s sarcasm) call Parking Nazis. Actually called Commissionaires, they seem to be paid via a bounty system, for they are nothing if not avid in their pursuit of parking law laggards. Consequently, downtown parking has become a source of endless local complaint.

Until now, I never had too much sympathy with those issues. First, I live close by and can walk downtown. Second, I know where all the city-owned parkades are and I don’t mind paying a couple of dollars to park there if I do happen to drive in. I share the common dislike of parking meters, mainly because I can’t trust myself to get back to the meter in time (and I know the Parking Nazis will strike if I don’t).

What changed my mind?

I started to feel a little uncomfortable when I heard rumors that our city council (like many, always hungry for more revenue with which to pay its comfortably-salaried upper management at City Hall) might put parking meters into “village” (neighborhood) centers (like Cook Street Village, a neighborhood node). That just seemed greedy – and wrong. Especially since a neighboring municipality like Oak Bay, which has a thriving shopping area, charges nothing for parking. Downtown Victoria shoppers, in contrast, seem harassed and tortured – and now the city wants to extend that anxious climate into the neighborhoods? Not the way to go, council.

But the clincher to my change of heart came yesterday when I drove to another neighboring municipality, Saanich, which is now home to a brand-spanking-new shopping center called Uptown. (Note the name’s positioning, a challenge to Downtown…)

I needed to buy a gadget …and the stores in Uptown had the best selection. And when I got there, the underground parking garage was full and everywhere I looked I saw shoppers. It was like a bustling little mini-downtown – pretty much the opposite of what our dying downtown looks like these days.

For an eye-popping “fly-through” of what the mall is supposed to look like when fully built out, take 4 1/2 minutes for the following video:

While there weren’t (yet) as many people milling about the open spaces (too much still under construction), it was lively and bustling. Full of people.

And that brings me back to my heretical thought:

Maybe, if you’re not Manhattan or any truly large city that actually has a functioning CBD (Central Business District) versus a relatively poky tourist-and-government-offices downtown as Victoria has, you should lay off the draconian parking rules.

Like Saanich’s Uptown (or even, on a good day, Oak Bay’s main street), Palo Alto’s streets were also filled to the brim with people spending money and keeping the economy humming along. While bus service (and commuter train service) and bicycles are popular there, so is the car. The city recognizes this and makes it easy for those people who do drive into town to find parking – and it lets them park for 2 hours for free, right downtown. Here in Greater Victoria, too many people say they avoid downtown because the Parking Nazis and the city’s general unfriendliness to shoppers (whose suburban mindset means they bring cars) infuriates them.

But at the same time, we don’t have a downtown residential population capable of sustaining the downtown economy – which means we still need that suburban shopper with his or her suburban mindset. So why not make those shoppers feel more welcome? Right now, they’re heading to Uptown in droves – as are some businesses formerly located downtown, because they need to go where the shoppers are.

Yes, in an ideal world we wouldn’t be catering to cars – and if we were a real city, we wouldn’t need to cater to suburbanites either, and we could afford to skin them for parking. But we aren’t, and we can’t. When your downtown is dying, it’s probably not the smartest thing to make it even more impenetrable to convenience …especially when the suburban mall is “conveniencing” its ass off to grab thousands of shoppers who now have even fewer reasons to come downtown.

I know this is apples and oranges, but I can’t help but be reminded of arguments around the debt ceiling/ economy debate. The idiot Republicans want to stand on principle, saying we must “balance the budget” by cutting it (while not introducing any new taxes – this is voodoo economics 2-dot-zilch). Some saner folks are arguing instead that we should forget the cuts and focus on getting the economy going again – and then we can deal with the debt.

I feel that way about our downtown: let’s see if we can get an economy going down there again, and forget about standing on the principle (enforced by Parking Nazis for the benefit of the City’s coffers) that cars are bad, that we should all be happily jogging or cycling downtown, and that we should pretend we have a decent public transportation system that makes using a car unnecessary (we don’t).

A parking garage in downtown Palo Alto, California. First 2 hours free parking.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting comments on this post happening on my as well as a friend’s Facebook page.
    Jarren Butterworth: The big problem with Victoria is that it has no real GRAND plan or vision. Pick a direction and run with it. Want to discourage cars? Sure, that’s a valid plan, but follow it up with a bold implementation of density, bike infrastructure, transit and everything else needed for the plan. Want to offer free parking to encourage shoppers? Then go with that, do everything you can to attract people downtown to shop. But the city does nothing, it makes many tiny plans that cost as much as a single big plan, but accomplish nothing.

    Mat Wright: ‎Jarren Butterworth +1! Nailed it – there is no ‘vision’. And what we end up with to counter the parking issue is the DVBA advertising for a ‘Parking Fairy’. So they will pay someone to run around downtown plugging expired meters, where the actual problem is not being addressed by council.
    Jarren Butterworth: I swear city hall and council are mostly suburban plants out to totally cripple and destroy the city as it goes against their saanich/langford lifestyles. No one could be that stupid or bad at their jobs, it has to be a conspiracy.
    Yule Heibel The DVBA’s “Parking Fairy” strategy makes me want to cry. It’s too little too late.

    I’m not sure I agree about the vision thing, though. Victoria is “good” at coming up with all kinds of “visions” – aka bafflegab, as per Gene Miller’s description. If anything, I’m really sick of visions and all the “well, d’oh, no sh*t, Sherlock” motherhood platitudes they entail. It’s an economic problem, not a vision one, imo.

    All of Victoria is essentially a suburb and is suburban in spirit. If we had a bridge, it would actually let Victoria come into its true character: not needing a city/downtown at all, everyone could just use Vancouver as the city center and turn all of Victoria into the bedroom community it already is. Why do you think the float plane traffic has increased so hugely in the last 10 to 15 years? It’s all symptomatic of how strongly people are willing to deny the (puny, anemic) city character we do have. Better to hop on a puddle jumper to Vancouver to visit the head office or to do a little shopping than to encourage economic activity here.

    Don’t even get me started on the mentality of resource extraction (in our case, today, *brand* exploitation: casting Victoria in amber, not letting it be dynamic and changeable). What we extract and exploit here is the natural setting, the beauty. And we’ve built some damn fine neighborhoods (suburbs) over the decades, whether it’s Fairfield or – pace – Broadmead. But not since frickin’ Rattenbury have humans built anything grand or amazing downtown (excepting perhaps a couple of buildings, like The Falls or The Atrium or some of Chard’s, but even so, they’re not on any kind of grand scale). If anything, we’ve trashed downtown, filled it with ugly stumpy garbage buildings that aren’t worth keeping, yet are protected by the “resist change” crowd, led by the vote-seeking councilors who’ll promise ignorant voters anything. We are living off the fat of the land (its beauty, its scenery) without giving anything back in terms of a built form that can answer the grandeur and sweetness of our natural setting. We are exploiters because we do nothing. We don’t build up or out, we sit on bureaucratic asses and manage the natural assets, kidding ourselves that this is enough. It isn’t. Doing nothing isn’t enough if you need to build a city (and yes, we *need* to build a city). No New Jerusalem was built by squirreling oneself away in the suburbs to admire “the view.” With a setting such as we have, we should build a City on a Hill. Instead, we’ve built a dump – which we mostly don’t see because we’re so dazzled by nature.

    Lisa Nazarko Fife: I completely agree. The parking Nazis are killing downtown business among other factors.
    Council seems so regressive rather than being able to think progressively.
    There has been nothing put forward to encourage, yet more to discourage.
    Cheryl DeWolfe: What killed it for me were the new centralized meters. I LOATHE them but will not fill your status. I also think we should follow Seattle’s lead and offer free transit inside the central Downtown core. Hop on hop off would mean parking could be distributed further outside the core.
    Yule Heibel: Even when parking spaces are available in the parkades on on-street, parking is a problem because of the Commissionaires, who are way too keen to hand out tickets. It’s downright adversarial – and for what? People are staying away because they hate those guys so much.

    And re. free transit in the core: ABSOLUTELY. I didn’t get into that in my blog post because it was already quite long, but I think we agree that we need an array of solutions. There’s no one silver bullet to the downtown-vs-uptown/suburbs​ problem, but it’s economic, and providing more opportunities for people to get into the core is key. That includes a free transit loop.

    Comment by Yule — August 3, 2011 #

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