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Building the perfect parking beast

Perhaps the best you can do is find the least imperfect system and call it a day

If you spend much of your work day talking to people about Downtown parking – as I do – you might come to view it – as I have -- as an holistic entity, an interconnected web where any and every tug on every and any strand is felt by all other parts.

When I picture parking, I conjure a 1000 person rugby scrum, or a conga line from here to Puslinch, or a quivering gelatinous blob the size of Starkey Hill. It’s like the Borg from Star Trek, an automobile-based Hive, a singular entity where every part of it is connected to every other part. But maybe I’ve been thinking about this too much. Maybe I should simplify.

Here goes . . .

Parking in Downtown Guelph is an ecosystem. There is no point in trying to fix one part of it if you don’t understand it as a whole.  And that’s hard to do because we don’t know a few things including: where the boundary for Downtown Parking (defined by use) is; how many people use it and for what reason; and – of course -- what it costs and what it earns (directly from fees, and indirectly as economic infrastructure: parking for customers means you might get customers; parking for tenants means you might fill your office space; etc.)

If you think that there are quick and easy solutions, you are probably thinking of quick and easy solutions that would be beneficial to you; unfortunately, your fix may be somebody else’s “break.” What helps you could hurt me. (I would love to be wrong about this; please let me know if you can crack the code on this one.)

Some of our woes come from our strengths: too many people wanting to park here is, in many ways, a good problem to have.  We are a Downtown of diverse parking demand across the course of a day. But because there is no single reason to seek out parking in Downtown Guelph, it’s hard to provide a regime that functions well for everybody.

If we were Wasaga Beach, for instance, we’d have a pretty clear path; it would be easy to apply a system that worked because 99 per cent of people looking to park are there to access the beach. Competition for scarce spots (if it’s a sunny Saturday in July) is level, and the longer you stay the more you pay. Simple.

But there aren’t 6,000 office workers in Wasaga competing with beach-goers for those limited spaces. There aren’t hundreds of people going to medical appointments, getting their hair done, buying shoes, or accessing municipal services.  Wasaga Beach doesn’t have a Sports and Entertainment Centre that draws 5,000 people to events while the beach is full. But that’s essentially what we have in Guelph.

Like life itself, parking in Downtown Guelph is a multi-dimensional challenge: you’ll never make everybody happy, you will always make some people unhappy, and the best you can do is find the least imperfect system and call it a day. Want to give it a go? Want to try and build the perfect parking beast? Sure you do.

All you have to do is: 1. support multiple users (customers, visitors, workers); 2. adjust according to time of day, time of week, and season of the year to accommodate shifting demand; 3. provide a wide range of options ( free short-term parking, free longer parking, paid parking, permit parking); 4. figure out where to locate those options; 5. find the right leavers to encourage turnover and compliance (warnings, parking tickets, “soft” towing, impound towing); 6. make sure that signage is unambiguous, obvious, and easy to understand – even for non-Guelphites; and 7. hope that it doesn’t take somebody getting a ticket to figure it out.  In other words, all you have to do is build a system so good that nobody ever mentions in when they talk about their trip Downtown.  

Easy as pi. Or at least it would be if you had unlimited space, streets designed to perfectly maximize all uses -- as well as appropriate and proximate availability to fulfil every changing demand across time (short and long term). But you have none of this. You are geographically constrained and working with a street and lot layout that makes you unable to max out what you’ve got.

The need to reserve certain spots changes but tin signs (like the Tin Man) remain mute on whether – for instance – a 15 min space is still enforced when stores are closed.

Oh, and did I mention that you have to do this while standing on one foot while spinning plates and juggling chainsaws (that is, doing what some call “public engagement”)?  But come on it’s not like it’s impossible. Is it?

Let me know how you make out.

Marty Williams is the Executive Director of the Downtown Guelph Business Association.


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