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$15 million parking lot a curious approach to planning for the future

My third crack at challenging our fundamental assumptions when it comes to travel and transit issues is in today's Guelph Mercury. My editorial board column comparing our parking investment to what it could do for transit is below, along with a whole lot more thoughts that did not make the cut into the version I submitted on account of space constraints.

First, I have a lot of respect for our current city council. In my view, they generally do the right thing. That is why I am so surprised that it would be this council that would drop a $30,000/stall parking lot in our laps. The mayor has explained her position on the Ward 2 councillors' blog. I highly recommend taking a read.

The way I see it, we are getting 500 parking spaces downtown -- at a cost of around $30,000 a stall -- at Baker St lot/housing/library regardless. I do not think we need 500 stalls much less 1,000 vertical parking spaces at that kind of price. Not to mention that those 1,000 spaces are not a net improvement in our parking situation - both Baker and Wilson St lots replace existing parking lots, so the total number of gained spots is closer to 700 between them, which substantially raises the price per stall in terms of cost per net new space, to well above the official numbers. Indeed, as a commenter on this site said a couple of weeks ago, I am not entirely sure why government is in the parking business in the first place. It is neither the most economical nor the most environmental solution for moving people.

I disagree that new parking garages are even a step in the direction of preparing to fight urban sprawl. Facilitating more cars does not discourage people from wanting single detached homes on what was the year before the site of a perfectly good forest or farm field at the outskirts of town. It makes those more attractive. If our goal is to encourage people to move into our downtown -- a laudable goal worth pursuing -- then we should seek creative new solutions that will encourage people to live downtown who will not own cars. If parking is not increased, but transit is made free, as I propose in my article, the type of people who will move to Guelph are the type of people who believe in transit and see leadership in this city, and their arrival would cause this effect to be self-perpetuating.

If I assume for a moment that the urgency of this parking garage is in reaction to my presentation last month warning of massive parking shortages for the pending transit hub and the need to set aside Lafarge lands for that purpose, there are two key points that need to be made. 1) 500 spots in a lot two blocks from the station will not last two months once GO trains arrive, and 2) If those parking spaces are to offset inter-regional transit parking demands, they will not be available for either downtown residents or downtown business. I am all for building parking to drive people out of their cars, but I do not believe that this lot will achieve that.

If we must have short term parking solutions, then we should make them short term. The city is already planning to turn one block of Carden St. into a one-way street to make way for angle parking. My question is: why not do this to the rest of downtown, as well? The other side of Carden St. until the arrival of the Transit Hub, Cork, Quebec, and Suffolk streets, could all be converted to one way with angle parking, each adding a significant number of parking spaces for minimal cost and maximal reversibility.

When the city's busses move from their current home at St. George's Square to the site of the Via station next year, if the plans go through, Wyndham could be switched to two lanes with angle parking for most of its length, including the large section in the downtown core where no parking exists at all today. This works for Macdonell.

That is all on the assumption that we want more parking downtown, which some people clearly do. But at the very least, going mostly one-way to make way for angle parking would cost a whole lot less than building apartment buildings designed to provide lodging for cars rather than for families.

What I would really like to see, though, is our bus system improved to the point that it can compete with cars. Will it cost a lot? That depends on what you compare it to. Compared to spending $30 million to build a pair of parking garages that will then need ongoing maintenance -- before inevitably being joined by two more in 20 years or less when we are, once again, completely out of parking and with this current very progressive council long gone, with their opportunity to Make a Difference missed -- transit is not so expensive.

What could we do to improve transit to the point that it is useful enough for, say, city councillors to use it to get to council meeting? Lots of things. Here are a few ideas, based on what would make me inclined to get out of my car and get on the bus.

1) Make riding it free or almost free.

A $58 per month pass for someone like me who telecommutes and only needs to leave the house occasionally, is a waste, but having to keep bus tickets on hand is annoying. The transfer given should be good for the day for any bus route, if we must charge a fare, so that it does not cost another $2 every time I stop to run my next errand on my tour. But there is no need to charge transit fares. The justification for it seems to be that our neighbours do, and not only must we charge fares, but our fares must be comparable to theirs. What we should try, instead, is subsidising our busses as well as we subsidise our roads and parking, and make transit fares free, or close to it.

In the same vein, the city has its free downtown parking pilot project, which, not surprisingly and in spite of excluding the parking meters around the farmers' market, is popular with Guelph's drivers, but I wonder about the wisdom of raising transit fares, as the City plans to do, by roughly the amount the City is losing on downtown's free parking. And I wonder if more people would go downtown if city busses were as free as the parking.

2) Make routes more frequent and direct.

The reality is that if I get on bus number 52, the outer limits of whose route I live on, and want to go downtown, it can take up to 30 minutes for the bus to arrive at the stop next to my house, while I either wait watching NextBus at my computer, or stand out in whatever weather at the sign post designating my stop. Then, it takes 20 more minutes to get to the university, and as much as 15 more minutes to get downtown. We are now almost 65 minutes into the journey, and I have just arrived downtown, a trip that takes about 8 minutes by car. And if I want to go somewhere other than downtown that is not directly on my own meandering, directionless bus route, it can take another half hour to get there.

We have routes designed for University students now that are quick, frequent, and efficient. I took route number 58, a seasonal, rush-hour only route, from my house to the University a couple of weeks ago, and was impressed that it a) came every 20 minutes, and b) only took 7 minutes door-to-door. Why? Because it went straight down Kortright, hung a left on Gordon, and went straight to the University.

3) Reduce the reliance on hub-and-spoke, and work toward point-to-point, bi-directional routes.

We are already on this track. We have the downtown transit hub proceeding, the bus terminal at the University Centre where 6 city bus platforms meet 3 GO bus platforms, the transfer point behind the mall, and the addition of our first bi-directional route, number 70. There are also plans to build new mini-hubs around the city at places like the West End Recreational Centre.

Over the long term, we could plan to further improve our bus system by complementing our existing system to take advantage of the long, skinny shape of Guelph, by running busses the length of Victoria, Gordon, Edinburgh, the Hanlon, and Imperial. We could eventually run an outer ring peripheral route along, roughly, Arkell, Gordon, Clair, Hanlon, Downey, Niska, Whitelaw, Elmira, Woodlawn, Victoria, Grange, Watson, Arkell that connects the ends of all the other routes, both north/south and east/west, call it bus number 360. With those and busses going east/west along major corridors such as Speedvale, Willow, Wellington, College, Stone, and Kortright, we will start getting toward a bus system that really can get anyone anywhere quickly.

If that all sounds expensive, it isn't really. It is more a question of priorities than of money. To calculate the economics of it, consider this: I am told busses each cost approximately $500,000 to buy, and $100,000 per year to operate. For reference, if we take one of the two $15 million parking garages and buy busses with that money, it will buy us 30 of them. Take the other one and we can operate all 30 of those busses for 5 years, without counting fare revenue. And that is before counting cost overruns and maintenance costs on the garage that would instead be diverted to the bus system. With each bus able to carry around 40 people at any given point on their trip, with a lot of trips per day, that should more than make up for the capacity of the lost parking spaces.

4) Connect our bus system to our neighbours.

Guelph's bus system is a decent bus system domestically, but you cannot get out of, or into, Guelph with it. We are on track to fix this, too, with the return of the Transit Hub, but there are other things we can do as well. First off, as I have proposed before, let's run a bus from Guelph's airport to Waterloo's airport via the transit hub, conditionally upon Grand River Transit also running express to Waterloo airport from its three downtowns. This would connect us to Waterloo region in a meaningful way, something that is going to have to happen sooner or later, not to mention that it would provide a transit route to the airports themselves. Canada is quite bad at connecting its airports to transit, a topic I briefly covered a few days ago. I would also eventually like to see that same route extended eastward all the way to Acton or Georgetown to connect to Brampton Transit, which would allow anyone to travel freely between anywhere in or near Guelph to contact points with the GTA. Right now, one can take city busses from Brampton to Oshawa or Stoney Creek, and such a connection would extend the westward limits of that massive transit network.

Ultimately what I would like is a transit system that allows me to give up my car because the transit system is a better option than driving. And we can all do it, if we make the collective decision that our infrastructure investment should be spent the best way possible. There is nothing economical about spending $30,000 per parking space in Guelph, more than the value of most of the cars that will park in it, and enough to buy over a hundred bicycles per stall. Knowing that that many years of my municipal tax-dollars are going to pay for that single parking space will only encourage me to use it.

Without further ado, here is the article.

Don't build parking at expense of transit

There is a parking crunch coming to downtown Guelph. There is no argument about this.

Local businesses are concerned about the loss of parking at the Via station with the construction of the transit hub, parking that is not public to begin with. There are other local trouble spots as well.

According to an article in this newspaper, 93 people are on a waiting list for a parking pass in downtown's parking lots. Our city leadership argues that we need more parking to help bring more people in to live downtown. It is more creative solutions and more leadership, not more parking, that we need to accomplish this.

The city agreed last month, in a surprise move, to spend $400,000 to plan a 500-stall parking garage on the site of the current Wilson Street parking lot, at a cost staff say will be $30,000 per stall. The surprise is that we are studying how to build it rather than whether to build it.

According to the 2006 Guelph-Wellington Transportation Study: "As redevelopment occurs in downtown without increased management of parking, the city will be required to invest in structured parking at $25,000 per stall. Experience elsewhere indicates that it is difficult to recover the money invested in construction and maintenance of a parking structure."

The same study notes a decline of 15 per cent in transit's share of Guelphites' travel, from 6.1 per cent in 1996 to 5.2 per cent in 2001, the years the study examined. In the same period, auto passengers dropped from 19 per cent to 17.1 per cent, with auto drivers picking up the entire difference from both transit and car passengers, rising from 63.3 per cent to 66.3 per cent of all travel within the city.

That approximately 15 per cent relative drop in public transit use between 1996 and 2001 is alarming.

In effect, it means that not only were 15 per cent fewer people taking public transit, but those people are moving to cars and increasing the total number of vehicles on the road, which block and slow down transit buses among their other effects. Where are the studies to explore this trend and its possible solutions?

If we are in need of more parking, it is not because we need more cars: it is because our public transit system is inadequate.

While the study points out that barely one in 20 trips in Guelph is made by bus, two out of three are made alone in a car.

It is time for us to be more creative than we have been over the last half century. It is time for Guelph to start "Making a Difference," as our city's new motto proclaims. If not now, when?

Is spending at least $15 million, the equivalent of the city's revenue from 258,620 adult bus passes, to temporarily accommodate our parking-pass waiting list the right way to go? Is it appropriate for us to fund public transit to the tune of 55 per cent, but parking at a rate of, or near, 100 per cent?

Why do our studies look at how to improve our roads rather than how to improve travel? Where are the studies to tell us why we need to sacrifice the equivalent of 43 years of adult bus passes per driver, spending $30,000 per parking stall, to help them park their cars?

Are we really making a difference by doing so, or are we just letting ourselves off the hook? Where are the studies that focus on public transit solutions?

If downtown business needs new parking spaces, is it not reasonable for downtown businesses to pay for their construction?

Stone Road Mall has more parking than all of downtown's public spaces put together, yet not only are none of those spots paid for by the taxpayer, but municipal taxes are paid on all of the mall's 2,600 parking spaces.

If we take the conservative estimate of $15 million that the Wilson Street parking garage will cost, and instead offer free and improved city bus service, we will soon see how many new parking spaces we actually need downtown.

Do we want to continue with 20th-century concrete solutions that no longer work, or look for 21st-century solutions that will make a difference?

We need to prepare for the transit future that we all know is coming. Building parking at the expense of public transit will not get us there.

Posted at 09:53 on April 12, 2008

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