In their business plan for the next two years, the Winnipeg Parking Authority, the City of Winnipeg’s special operating agency that regulates parking downtown, has proposed increasing parking meter rates and introducing paid parking of $1 per hour on weekday evenings, between 5:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
It may seem counterintuitive to the person seeking an urban environment better suited to pedestrian activity, but in the age of the automobile, on-street parking actually improves the walkability and conditions of urban life.
While off-street parking facilities – parking lots and parkades – detract from the quality of the street through lower densities and poor aesthetics, on-street parking – along the curb – adds to the street by calming traffic and encouraging storefront commerce.
A line of parked cars along the curb acts as a physical and psychological buffer between moving vehicles and pedestrians.
The sidewalk seemingly becomes more safe and pleasant, encouraging people to not only walk, but stand around and chat with people, or find a bench or sidewalk café.
More directly, on-street parking encourages commercial development in densely built neighborhoods without adjacent free parking spaces.
Available or potentially available on-street parking is crucial for businesses, particularly in a city with relatively low population densities, a lack of good transportation alternatives and a historically dwindling urban culture.
To Stefano Grande, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement Zone, the Parking Authority’s plan for increased rates and extended hours for on-street parking downtown is a tool to encourage quicker turnover of parking spaces, which means more customers for businesses.
While this may prove true in busy daytime hours, downtown is a ghost town in the evenings, and slow on-street parking space turnover is a problem ranked just below too many rapid transit stations.
If metered parking was good for business, as Grande suggests, why not try it on Corydon Avenue in the evenings?
With a high concentration of popular restaurants, bars and retail, Corydon would certainly qualify as a “high pressure” parking zone.
Of course, the answer to that question is that every business owner on Corydon would oppose any attempt to enforce paid parking.
But that is Corydon, a popular strip defined by its small businesses.
In downtown Winnipeg, the domain of empire-building renewal agencies and megaproject-dreaming developers looking for government handouts, the concerns of small businesses are an afterthought.
For decades, downtown Winnipeg has struggled to establish some kind of sidewalk life after office workers head for the suburbs at the end of the day.
Even the Exchange District, which has seen a significant increase in new businesses over the last five years, is still a tough market in the evenings and on weekends.
Downtown Winnipeg does not suffer from a shortage of major destinations and events, but it does suffer a lack of a concentration of small, everyday micro-destinations.
The Parking Authority’s plan for $1 per hour parking before 8:30 p.m. will likely not sway people from going to the symphony, a Moose game or the Fringe Festival.
It could, however, be the deciding factor in the choice between sushi at BluFish on Bannatyne, or at Wasabi on Osborne.
With enough customers making these decisions, businesses will soon follow them to less regulated neighbourhoods.
In a healthy downtown, people visit for countless small, casual purposes in the evenings. They meet a friend for coffee, go on date at a restaurant, bring their child to piano lessons or browse the stacks of a used bookstore.
Even in cities with densely populated downtowns and a good transit system, many people arrive by car and park on the street when they do these activities.
Casual users of downtown after the workday ends are exactly what Winnipeg needs to help create busier, safer streets and a thriving concentration of storefront commerce.
The City of Winnipeg should be making it easier for this to happen, not harder, and city council should turn down the Parking Authority’s plans for metered parking in the evenings.
Robert Galston is a University of Winnipeg student who blogs about urban issues. Check out his blog at http://riseandsprawl.tumblr.com.
Published in Volume 65, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 24, 2011)