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Guy who doesn't drive shares his thoughts on downtown traffic

This week's Market Squared considers the more holistic questions about parking downtown
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Will more parking bring more business downtown, or will new spaces be snapped up by 9-to-5ers?

In the desperate scramble to fix the downtown’s parking deficit, the City of Guelph may be missing a very important component of the discussion: exactly how many more cars can the downtown support?

I don’t just mean where to put them where they’re not being driven, but how are all these cars we’re anticipating downtown going to fit on the road?

I think about this when I go downtown these days. Granted, I don’t drive, but sitting on the bus and not worrying about the traffic grants one a perspective by which you can just observe the traffic problems, and it is rather messy downtown.

Consider Macdonell Street. On a typical weekday you’ve got cars driving up and down a busy thoroughfare. You have people stuffing up the traffic flow as they sit on a parking space waiting for it to clear, or try in vain to parallel park in a place barely big enough for their car to fit snuggly.

On the upper end of Macdonell, buses pick up passengers on either side of the road while trucks are parked in the middle of the street delivering goods to nearby restaurants, shops and pubs. And then traffic must swerve again to avoid that concrete “island” we put there so tourists can take pictures of the Basilica!

By the way, the sun moves across the sky behind the Basilica in the afternoon, dousing your camera in the bright, afternoon sunshine so enjoy those shots.

The point is that in all our talk about where we’re going to put our cars downtown, we haven’t really had a conversation about how we’re going to manage those cars as they get to where they’re parking.

And let’s forget visitors for a minute. Places to Grow says that we must try and find room for thousands of more people to live in the core, and while the hope is that some of those people might be interested in living *and* working downtown, or hopping on public transit to get to work, that’s by no means a guarantee.

Indeed, it sometimes feels like our entire transportation strategy is built on a wing and a prayer: we will build enough parking for everyone that wants to drive, but we hope some of you will get on your bikes, walk, or take the bus. We’ll let you guys decide which one you want to do, and this will all sort itself out naturally.

Except that’s not how traffic works.

There’s a phenomenon called “induced demand”, which is a way of saying that the more the supply of a good increases, the more it’s consumed. As shown by researchers at the Davis campus of the University of California, a 10 per cent increase in road capacity led to an immediate 3- to 6-per-cent increase in traffic. In the long term, that 6 per cent grows to 10 per cent in new traffic on a road that was probably built with the intention of easing congestion.

A similar trend has been measured with parking. Studies have tied an increase in parking capacity to higher rents, more congestion, and longer commute times. In other words, they dissuade the creation of urban mobility because if you know that parking is waiting for you on the other end, it’s always going to be easier to hop into your car and drive to where you need to go.

Of course, the crux of the current parking dilemma downtown was summed up by Downtown Guelph Business Association executive director Marty Williams at Monday’s Committee-of-the-Whole. The problem, Williams said, is that 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, too much on-street parking downtown is being used by the people who work there and not the people visiting or shopping.

We also know that the waiting list is long for parking spaces, and that the more businesses that move into the core, the longer that list becomes. So how do we know that more parking downtown is going to bring more business downtown? How do we know that those extra parking spaces aren’t going to be for the exclusive use of the 9-to-5ers?

We don’t, but I think we know they will.

My question is if downtown is to be such a destination, then why doesn’t the City of Guelph lead by example and encourage its own staff to use transit? Why don’t they offer discounts to downtown businesses and their employees for transit passes?

The answer is that fields of cars waiting for their owners to return is still the preferred symbol of status and wealth. Lots of business people and professionals getting off the bus just doesn’t say it the same way.

In the meantime, the city believes that if you build it – parking-wise speaking – they will come. The problem is, they’re right.