Downtown Bureau

Live and Don't Learn, Downtown Parking Edition

We have not absorbed any of the lessons about how choices about parking supply and management affect behaviour, land use and the economy - especially in downtowns.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 16, 2013

It seems the City of Hamilton is living in some parallel parking universe (sorry about the bad pun) with its new Downtown Parking study. The City of Hamilton, or at least the MMM Group, seems not to have absorbed any of the lessons we have learned about how choices about parking supply and management affect behaviour, land use and the economy - especially in downtowns.

Surface parking in downtown Hamilton
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton

Parking rates should be set to ensure about 15 percent vacancy (or one free spot per block for street parking). Right now, the report's own data says that the overall vacancy rate has increased to 32 percent (peak occupancy of 68 percent), which is far too high even at the comparatively low parking prices that lots are charging.

This shows there is a glut of parking on the market.

On the other hand, there is a small area downtown that may have a vacancy rates close to the optimal 15 percent in five years. If the vacancy rate ever drops significantly below 15 percent, the obvious solution is to raise the charges from the insanely low current values (e.g. $4 all day on the lot east of Hess Village).

Large supplies of cheap parking encourage people to drive, which raises costs because of the need to build and maintain the parking supply.

Using valuable downtown land for surface parking or multi-storey parking garages harms the economy, since this land cannot be used for productive purposes like housing, shops and other businesses. At the same time, the parking structures themselves are unfriendly to pedestrians.

The study predicts that parking demand will grow inexorably and that it makes sense to plan now for a major increase in parking supply, even though the demand is not "urgent". However, vehicle traffic is actually dropping around North American downtowns (e.g. in Vancouver), and even in downtown Hamilton, parking occupancy has fallen since 2005.

Less Parking, Not More

There is no need to encourage the development of even more parking in Hamilton. Indeed, we should be doing the opposite. We should be favouring the development of destinations, and those building these destinations (e.g. shops, restaurants and offices) can decide for themselves how much parking they need to be successful.

The worst part of this recommendation is that it runs exactly counter to Hamilton's stated goal of doubling transit use. The Metrolinx Benefits Case Analysis on Hamilton's LRT plan found that the oversupply of cheap parking downtown (apparently the cheapest in Canada) would make it more difficult for LRT to compete and to encourage dense urban development.

Coincidentally, I just listened to a podcast of the CBC Ideas program on parking. One of the interesting points of the program is that surface parking essentially acts as a land bank and encourages property speculation by making it economically attractive for landowners to hold onto property for years (or decades) without developing it.

The recommendations in this downtown parking study will make the problem of property speculation in downtown Hamilton worse, as the City is now actively encouraging more ground-level parking in both surface lots and parking structures.

Planning for Failure

Maybe the MMM Group needs to get up to speed with contemporary approaches to managing parking needs. Their report sounds like something from the 1970s, and indeed one of their own specialties is "the planning, design and contract administration of multi-level, complex parking structures."

Then again, consultants rarely recommend something that they know their clients don't want. Once again, Hamilton is planning for failure. We were never serious about doubling transit use or encouraging a dense walkable downtown.

How anyone in their right mind could look at downtown Hamilton, with parking rates of $55 a month or $4 per day and entire city blocks devoted to half-empty parking lots, and conclude we need more parking is beyond me.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 11:23:58

Utterly ridiculous that they think we need more parking!

This seems designed to get the city to pony up money to help build a Blanchard parking structure if you ask me.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 12:27:57

I agree with your point of view completely, however this article is not too great. You may want to actually mention explicitly what report you are talking about, because without having already known about this parking report it is completely unclear where you are coming from and what you are trying to say.

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By iliketobike (anonymous) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 13:20:01

It seems ironic that the article number is 1952.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 21:39:51

I love the comment by the guy they interviewed stating that "not 100 percent of people will use transit or their bikes to come downtown".

How about we try to get the percentage using cars to come downtown under 90% before we start talking as if this is Copenhagen. Imagine what level of safe, separated bike links could be built through the entire city, not just downtown, for $25 million??

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 22:39:16

"The conventional property tax, which taxes land and buildings at the same rate, is essentially backwards when it comes to the behaviors it incentivizes. It penalizes property owners for building or making improvements to their structures, while rewarding speculators and absentee landlords who would rather allow their properties to decay than make expensive (and annually taxable) improvements. Taxing land and buildings at the same rate means that as long as you don’t put any buildings on your land, your tax bill is going to remain relatively cheap. If you’re a speculator, this means that you only need a modest amount of revenue (say, a few bucks a day from people driving into the city for work or to go shopping) in order to sit on that land indefinitely, or until someone comes along offering your “pie-in-the-sky” price (to quote one downtown city planner I spoke to)—effectively keeping the land out of the hands of those with genuine interest in putting it to productive use."

http://streetsblog.net/2012/12/10/want-t...

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By ViennaCafe (registered) | Posted September 16, 2013 at 22:43:47

"What we found through these studies was that on-street parking plays a crucial role in benefiting activity centers on numerous levels ... "

http://www.planetizen.com/node/31274

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By Simon (registered) - website | Posted September 16, 2013 at 22:53:14

So I had an errand downtown last week on a Wednesday morning.

I though about taking the bus, but even though I live right on one of the best serviced routes in the city, the next bus wasn't for another 15 minutes (they're actually 20 minutes apart). That's about twice as long as I'm really willing to wait, but whatever - then I go try to find some change for bus fare. Who has change - not me. Now, I'm remembering the last time I tried to take the bus - the guy at the convenience store 10 minutes out of my way, pissed that I just wanted bus tickets, which I had to pay for by getting cash out of the $4 a pop convenience store cash machine.

So now I'm thinking, oh well, I can drive there in 10.

So I drive downtown. Oh no, finding parking at 10:00 in the morning on a Wednesday is going to be a pain. Pull into first lot, right beside where I'm going, tons of spots. Cost? $2. Less than half of what bus fare would have cost. (I know there are other costs when driving, but parking vs bus fare is what I had to pay out of pocket, so that's what I was comparing).

Finish my appointment around lunch time. Think, oh, I'll walk 5 minutes over to King William and get some lunch. Then, realize I have to do something with the car. Decide to drive over to King William since I know parking will be available and its only going to cost another $2.

Except, now that I'm in my car anyway, and I missed the fucking turn on a fucking one way street because changing lanes on a fucking one way street is a fucking disaster, I decide - fuck it, I'm just going to make myself a sandwich a home.

Now imagine your average CHML listener, going through the same thought process.

Is it any wonder that a study would recommend more parking - given as pointed out that consultants often mysteriously meet the same conclusions as their clients?

Never mind you know, supply and demand. What would the peak occupancy be if parking rates tripled to something closer to a reasonable rate?

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By movedtohamilton (registered) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 08:58:12

No thread derailing intended, but..HSR is a screaming bargain when compared to taking a private car downtown and parking it. For $2.00 (using Presto) I can go to the new NationsFresh for some groceries, drop in at the library, do another errand and then get the bus home. If I do this within 2 hours the round-trip is two bucks!

But Hamilton is the "20-minute city",whose residents seem to fetishize the car. "Take a bus? Are you nuts?"

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 09:41:30

How's this for a parking anecdote. I biked to supercrawl Fri night, as I live a few minute bike ride from James N. Planned to do the same on Sat night.

Due to various circumstances - being out of town all day, having to pick up a friend for the crawl around 8:30 etc.... it just so happened that I was coming towards downtown from the east (my friends place) around 9pm - the heart of supercrawl. I planned to ditch the car at my place and we'd walk over, but for a laugh I said "let me see if there are parking spots on Hughson St", as we headed up King. He said there was no chance of street parking, but perhaps a lot would work. I turned on Hughson, and then right on King William and viola - a free curb-side parking spot was open in front of Baltimore House. 9 pm. Supercrawl Saturday. A free street spot ONE block from James N.

I'm pretty sure parking is not a problem downtown.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 12:31:18

Here's my parking anecdote: I live just up the mountain and bused to supercrawl - $2 with my presto card, stayed down there about 6 hours, then bused it back up.

Oh, and when I do drive downtown (for dinner at one of our many fantastic restaurants) I've never had any trouble finding parking. There are always lots of free spaces in a number of nearby lots.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 13:49:17

Why do the local media and city officials constantly engage in straw man arguments to discredit sensible, proven urban planning principles?

On heritage, we had the Spec editorial warning "we can't save everything" implying that heritage advocates want every single building restored to original condition, when the reality is that the City hadn't designated (i.e. saved) a single building in five years.

Now on parking we have Ted Arnold, the City's parking manager telling CBC News "“To have a vibrant area, you need parking. Not 100 per cent of the people headed to the core will walk, or take a bus or ride a bike.”

As if the risk was that downtown Hamilton would soon have no cars at all, whereas in fact in Hamilton less than 10% of Hamiltonians commute by transit (far lower that Oakville, Ottawa or Toronto) and an even smaller number walking or cycling. With over 80% of commuters driving, why would the parking manager talk as if we must provide more parking downtown or there will soon be no people at all driving!

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-09-17 13:50:20

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By highwater (registered) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 18:19:24 in reply to Comment 92246

why would the parking manager talk as if we must provide more parking downtown...

Hmm. Thinking, thinking...

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By Paul Barter (anonymous) | Posted September 17, 2013 at 20:03:27

I wrote a post at the Reinventing Parking blog about this downtown parking issue. I only just found your excellent downtown parking items here at Raise the Hammer. So I have updated my post to link to them.
See my item at http://www.reinventingparking.org/2013/09/does-downtown-need-more-parking.html

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 18, 2013 at 16:01:32

Stranger than fiction: which is the genuine news report?

http://www.hammerinthenews.com/posts/gore-park-ing-lot http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/hamilton/n...

and this quote sounds like it could have actually come from the real parking report:

"The Hamilton City Planning and Economic Development Department (HCPEDD) reviewed a study today that suggests we create more parking downtown, 'in order to reduce dependency on the automobile and to promote alternative modes of transportation.'"

When it is hard to tell satire from expensive consultants reports, we know we're in trouble.

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