Parking woes are the price of success for downtown businesses

Let’s face it — no one wants to pay for parking. Yet we all want to park near where we shop, dine, and visit. This has always been a challenge and opportunity for great and vibrant downtowns.

Economic development gurus Gregory Pierce and Donald Shoup say it best: “Underpriced (free) and overcrowded curb parking creates problems for everyone except a few lucky drivers who find a cheap space; all the other drivers who cruise to find an open space waste time and fuel, congest traffic, and pollute the air. Overpriced and under-occupied parking also creates problems; when curb spaces remain empty, nearby merchants lose potential customers, workers lose jobs and cities lose tax revenue.”

Downtown Winnipeg is undergoing a revival. The majority of restaurant owners and retailers in the emerging Sports, Hospitality and Entertainment District (SHED) tell us that their customers are having a difficult time finding on-street parking around places like the MTS Centre. In other words, the lack of on-street parking is affecting their customers and business operations. The Downtown BIZ’s goal is to help our businesses flourish, and to learn and borrow from best practices observed in other downtowns. Our downtown needs to find ways to help short-term parkers find on-street parking, and to encourage long-term parkers to utilize off-street parking, as well as to promote alternative modes of transportation.

Recently the City of Winnipeg proposed aggressive ticketing, yet the majority of our members surveyed are not in favour of, or are unsure if, enforcing parking turnover in this way is the best approach. Sixty per cent of our members were cool to the idea of ticketing people who stay longer than two hours between 5:30-8:30 p.m. on weekdays. Their opinion is in line with what other cities have experienced.

Employees, residents, students and others will still take advantage of the two-hour free parking, and simply move their cars every two hours in the evening. As long as parking remains free, we will not be able to create the long-term mind shift we are aiming for, that is, park further away or in a parkade, take transit, bike, walk — all goals outlined in the City of Winnipeg’s OurWinnipeg plan. For this segment of users, this won’t fully create the turnover desired. The enforcement approach will leave more people with parking tickets, in turn creating negative downtown perceptions and attitudes. This could set back our downtown renewal.

There is no doubt that our downtown is becoming more and more vibrant in the evening, even when the Jets are not playing. And with the arrival of the Moose, the Jets’ AHL farm team, more conventions and the imminent opening of the Winnipeg Police Service headquarters with their 2,500-plus employees, the problem is about to get worse. This is a good problem to have, but with just 700 on-street stalls, and at times over 20,000 people in this area, the dilemma is clear. That’s why on-street parking needs to be better managed today.

A common practice in many downtowns and business districts where there are on-street parking challenges is to charge for that premium spot during the hours of parking congestion (in our case, up to 10:30 p.m.). As Donald Shoup has proven in his research, if this is done correctly, every time you come downtown to this area, there should be an on-street spot for you — especially if you want to park on the same block where your favourite restaurant is. In other words, the new parking policy would encourage those that want to park long-term on the street, into other locations such as parkades or off-street parking lots.

But if you want to avoid paying for parking, you can still park on-street but a few blocks away, outside of this area. Also, some of our restaurants have free customer parking, surface parking lots or parkade spots secured for their customers nearby. You can always ask when making a reservation if they have free parking.

In our conversations with our business community, we hear eloquently about the need for other parking solutions, like park-and-rides, public infrastructure dedicated to rapid transit, and the importance of walkability and living/working/playing downtown. They are right — we need more dense, mixed-use developments along our transit routes, which integrate parking as part of broader transportation goals. Relying solely on increasing prices or even enforcement is short sighted and does not take into consideration other issues.

The BIZ and its business community have spent a considerable amount of time researching and in consulting BIZ members. We’re looking forward to ongoing conversations with our members and the community-at-large in advancing some of these ideas with city hall.

Stefano Grande is the executive director of the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

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