Tag Archives: downtown

A quick two-way story

I was biking south on Queen Street when I got to the newly two-directional King Street and realized I could turn in whichever direction I felt like. It was a feeling of liberation – no more biking the long way around a block to get to my destination! Two-way traffic makes navigating downtown so much simpler.

St Catharines at night

406

From back to front: the buildings on the south side of St Paul Street, downtown St Catharines; the Lower Level parking lot and future home of the Niagara Centre for the Arts; Highway 406 (formerly the First Welland Canal).

mai1

At the corner of St Paul and William streets, downtown St Catharines.

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

A Place to Grow

Common Cluster Elements (p 69)

Downtown St. Catharines is designated an Urban Growth Centre by the province. Being hemmed in by the Greenbelt, it’s just as well; the city has run out of room for any more single-family detached homes. Future residential growth will have to come from the core anyway, so it’s good to have support from a higher level of government.

The city’s Downtown Creative Cluster Master Plan is now available online [pdf]. Hopefully, present and future city councils pay attention. I’ll admit, I skimmed most of the 119 pages, but what I read made sense.

Some recommendations from the plan:

Improve the streetscape. Widen sidewalks to accommodate pedestrian traffic. Plant trees. Use articulated paving stones. Good stuff like that.

Greater quantity and quality of public parking. The car rules in St. Catharines and cannot be ignored. The Carlisle parking structure needs to be rebuilt, and the lower-level parking lot needs a better connection to the rest of Downtown.

Respect heritage buildings. For example, the west end of St. Paul Street, with it’s three-story, nineteenth-century brick buildings, is safe from the wrecking ball. Buildings at the east end of the street that were constructed more recently, and with less concern for pedestrians and other unprofitable frivolities, are ripe for redevelopment.

In short, the plan says the basics are in place for Downtown’s future, but it’s going to take a lot of work to get a vibrant and livable finished product.

(More at the Standard.)

Wide Open Spaces

Chicago and Toronto are in pretty good shape relative to their Rust Belt neighbours. As far as I can tell from the Wikipedia numbers, the urban agglomerations on the south shore of Lake Michigan and the west shore of Lake Ontario are by far the most populous in the Rust Belt. The relative prosperity of Chicago and Toronto may in part be due to their critical mass which allows them to function independent of their surroundings.

Smaller cities like Cleveland struggle in isolation because they are not as self-sustaining. The only physical connections between Rust Belt cities and beyond are expensive airplane tickets or interminably long journeys by road.

The upcoming Democratic primary in Pennsylvania had drawn some attention to the contrast between Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west. Ryan Avent asks, why is eastern Pennsylvania so much more prosperous than the west?  His answer, after the break. Continue reading