It’s easy to sometimes get a sense of déjà vu at city council, but in the case of next week’s special workshop meeting it’s especially true because the subject for discussion will be the update of the Downtown Parking Master Plan.
Now let me say that a re-examination of downtown parking is completely warranted. As pointed out in council materials, between pandemic changes around modes of work, a new appreciation of patios, plus new and upcoming development (especially) in the form of the Baker Street Redevelopment, we should probably be looking at parking issues in the core.
So why déjà vu? I’m old enough to remember the last time that council looked at the Downtown Parking Master Plan. I watched all the work that went into that project, and then silently judged as council shelved the recommendations and sent staff back to the drawing board. Why? We know that the era of big parking is over, but no one wants to admit it.
We’ve been to this place before, many times, and it’s usually when we’re talking about high density development. What do we need so many parking spaces for?! People want to walk, or ride their bike, or hop on the transit bus now, don’t they?!
They don’t. And to pretend to otherwise is to lie to ourselves and each other. The hypothesis is correct, and it’s proven time and again: more parking and roads only breeds more parked cars and traffic. But the test, that we can reduce parking and maintain the road system as it already exists as a way of encouraging people to leave their car at home, continues to fail.
Now let’s consider downtown specifically, and no matter what way you look at it there are a number of issues around parking.
First, there have been more than a couple of calls, including one from the mayor himself, to take Downtown Guelph into a car-free direction. The test there was when the intersection of Macdonell and Wyndham was shut down in the summer in 2020 as an experiment in mid-pandemic economic recovery, and by most accounts, it was a universal success.
On the margins though, the closure was hugely disruptive.
The transit schedule was constantly compromised due to long detours to avoid an intersection that nearly every bus passes through, which meant missed connections and long waits for the next bus at Central Station. Also, there was a lot of demand for food delivery at the time, which created a real jam in this one area with no through traffic and where there’s a lot of different eateries.
There’s also a matter of accessibility to consider. For someone with a disability, a vehicle is a mobility device, whether that’s their own private car or a mobility bus, and if you have a disability, being able to stop as close to your final destination as possible shouldn’t be treated like a privilege.
So turning downtown into a car-free zone seems wholly impractical, but what about the opposite? Would we have the stomach to build another 500-spot parkade by, say, tearing down the bank building at Cork and Wyndham or the old Guelph Concert Theatre? Did you just spit up your coffee? I hope so, you know why?
Nobody wants to park in a structure or a lot! They want to park as close to their destination as humanly possible, which is why the pretext of a “car-free downtown” as imagined in the Summer of 2020 is so laughable. Why were people willing to park and walk then, but they weren’t willing before and they’re certainly not willing since?
Next, we need to talk about transit, and while I appreciate that there’s some turnover in leadership presently at the Downtown Guelph Business Association, I need to point out that the map on the DGBA website still marks Guelph Central Station as only a place for regional transit, not local.
Speaking of regional transit, council had a workshop meeting this week about economic development and tourism and it was frequently noted that the lack of regional transit options is an impediment. If you’re a busy professional and you need to come to Guelph for business from Kitchener, Waterloo, London, Cambridge, Hamilton, Niagara or any point in between, you’re almost definitely going to be using your car.
(After I wrote this line, Metrolinx announced that they’re adding an hourly bus route weekdays that runs through Guelph between Hamilton and Waterloo Region. I don’t know what impact this will have, but it’s certainly rare progress.)
Despite those apparent gaps, the DGBA still labels Guelph Central Station as the place you can catch a Greyhound bus, which is the ultimate expression of the state of regional transit because it shows in black and white terms (so to speak) how things have stayed exactly the same for going on four years.
If the intention is to make Guelph a regional hub for economic activity then we need regional transit options and not just two-way, all-day GO Train service, which has been the main preoccupation for transit in the last several years. In lieu of regional transit, people will take their own car, and if they’re taking a car, they’ll need someplace to park.
Having said that, if people from out of town are driving and parking, then why shouldn’t people in town be able to do the same. If the point is to draw people into the core should we be proctoring how they do it? And how can we say to some people not to park and then tell others they’re fine parking? Who makes those decisions?
These confusing thoughts and goals are going to make achieving a master parking plan as difficult this time as it was about seven or eight years ago, if not more so. It’s clear that the city has its vision of what they want downtown to be, but that vision has never exactly aligned with the present residents of the core. At this point, there’s no reason to think that history won’t repeat itself.