As the effects of COVID-19 continue and businesses start to re-open, one thing that is of keen interest to me is the City of Penticton’s plan with parking.
Back in March, the City decided to stop charging for curb parking in the downtown. Before I get into at least a few reasons why this is a terrible decision, I think it’s important to understand what parking is: essentially short-term rental of public property for the storage of private goods.
In the press release announcing the decision to stop allowing the public to collect this land rent, Mayor John Vassilaki said, “This decision supports shorter visits to businesses and access to essential services in our downtown through this difficult period.”
While noble, free parking actually does the opposite — it encourages cars to stay longer. It removes the incentive (the cost) to leave the space as soon as possible. It’s also a complete myth that free parking is somehow good for businesses: when the parking is free there is nothing to incentivize long-term parkers from leaving the prime curb spaces free for short-term users. Charging for the spaces encourages turnover.
If council deems that they need to support downtown businesses, why wouldn’t they send a cheque? Or if they want to help with rent, why not help people instead of cars?
Proper management of the curb aside, I think the thing that bothers me the most about “free parking”, and the reason we need urgent parking reform in Penticton, is the policy is incredibly inequitable and just plan unfair.
An excellent example of why this is unfair is the Penticton Community Centre. This facility is a jewel of our city — a prime gathering place and a source of many worthwhile programs. All of which cost money to operate, and the city collects entrance fees to cover the costs of running these great programs. People of all ages, backgrounds, and income levels access this facility.
The one thing that is offered free: land rent for automobiles. How is that fair to people who don’t, can’t afford to, or choose not to drive for environmental or other reasons? They don’t receive a discount if they walk or bike. Ultimately these people are who pay for the parking, as they receive nothing financially equivalent to the free land rent the automobile user receives. Instead, we should be charging for the parking and using the money to reduce financial barriers for folks to access the programs.
With the community centre example in particular, the built environment of the streets leading the centre from downtown only reinforces our backwards car-first mentality.
Churchill Street has no sidewalks: pedestrians must walk between moving and parked cars. Westminster has a lot of heavy vehicles using it as a corridor and there is no space given for people on bikes: have fun riding between a row of parked cars and moving tractor trailer. Wade Avenue is too narrow for curb parking, but instead of banning curb parking, we allow motor vehicles onto the sidewalk, marginalizing the space for the pedestrian and cyclist: double whammy!
How bad has it gotten in Penticton for our bottom line, this obsession with free parking? Consider that in 2018 (the most recent data I could find) the City of Penticton collected a measly $342,000.
To put this in perspective, the City of Nelson, a city less than a third of the size of Penticton by population in 2019 collected $1.39 million: $1.1 million in meter revenue and $290,000 in parking meter fines. We could be collecting $4 million annually on behalf of all residents and earmarking the revenue to projects that could benefit the whole community: public wi-fi, increased cleaning of streets, or planting trees, just to give a few examples. You could do almost anything with it, but earmarking the revenue is key.
Ultimately, I have zero faith in council committing to meaningful and fair parking reform, but it won’t stop me from continuing to try.
Matt Hopkins is a board member of the Penticton & Area Cycling Association and co-founder of the Penticton Bike Valet.