Free Parking in St. Catharines

A significant reconfiguration of downtown’s relationship with the car is already underway: Two-way conversion of streets like St. Paul and Ontario will slow cross-core travel but make downtown a more attractive place to live, work, and shop (not to mention easier to navigate).

At the same time, the prospect of free parking downtown is being mulled by the city’s movers and shakers. If I might strike a note of caution, as the benefits of two-way traffic might seem counter-intuitive to some, the cost of free parking might be equally opaque at first glance.

I won’t deny that St. Catharines is a city built on the automobile. I recall reading a while ago (but am too lazy to dig up the link) that the city ranks very poorly in public transit use. If people are going downtown, they are going downtown in their cars. Free parking seems like an obvious way to put downtown on more equal footing with the malls and “smart” centres in Niagara Region.

According to the city’s Downtown Creative Cluster Plan (remember that?) on-street parking in the core is already operating at 85 percent capacity. Future reconstruction of the Carlisle Street parking structure will probably further strain parking on-street parking. Considering downtown’s less than stellar reputation, I suppose it is good that so many people have a reason to be there. If parking were free downtown, it might actually make it less convenient to go there because you would spend longer looking for a place to park than is worth your time.

A conversation between the NY Times Freakonomics Blog and author Tom Vanderbilt reveals that St. Catharines may have already hit on the magic parking number (emphasis mine):

Q: It takes me an abnormal amount of time to parallel park. Am I somehow affecting traffic?

A: Urban street parking is one of those curious trade-offs. Some engineers hate street parking; they say it clogs roads (remember, a single double-parker on a street cuts the throughput in half) and causes crashes.

But others, and I view myself here, see it as an effective traffic calming device. People drive measurably slower on streets which are enclosed by rows of parked cars.

It’s searching for parking that’s more problematic, as Donald Shoup at UCLA shows us. Underpriced or free street parking causes significant amounts of excess traffic, as people “cruise,” or bargain hunt, for spaces. Meters should be set at rates, he argues, that ensure roughly 15 percent vacancy at any time. To paraphrase a cliché: there’s no such thing as free parking.

15 percent vacancy is 85 percent capacity; about where St. Catharines is today.

I wish downtown revitalization were as simple as introducing free parking, but until there is a significant change in demand or supply of parking downtown, we should concentrate our energies (and funds) elsewhere.

[photo] “Nice parking Debbie!” by ukslim


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