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Public Rallies Against Pay Parking in Canadian Town

By Pete Goldin

"There is no such thing as free parking,” says Sandra Smith, Supervisor of Bylaw Services for the municipality of Whistler, Canada. This profound statement is the final word in a passionate public debate that encompassed the ski resort town in British Columbia, with the public demanding to keep free parking in a city garage that had never charged for parking before.
The commotion all started at a City Council meeting in May, when the council decided to raise street parking rates from $1 to $2 per hour, and to implement pay parking in a garage, adjacent to the town’s shopping area, that had always been free.
The council’s mistakes were many. First, they made it clear that the only reason for the change was to generate more revenue for the city.
“In these tough economic times, the council had their eye on the money,” says Smith, who is in charge of the city’s parking.
According to Smith, the council repeatedly made the point about revenue but did not reference other legitimate reasons to raise parking rates and implement pay parking, such as reducing overall vehicle use, single-occupancy-vehicle use, and greenhouse gas emissions – all of which may have been more acceptable to the public.
In addition, there was no consultation with Smith’s Bylaw Services department, no study of parking usage, and no communication to the public. The council simply made the decision one day and stuck to it.
Public Backlash
The public response was fast and furious. From the day the pay parking equipment was deployed in the garage, the disconcerted residents of Whistler gathered in car parks to sign petitions, sent more than 250 letters to the council, and even created a Facebook group and a website (www.freewhistlerparking.com) to voice their displeasure on the Internet.
The public’s general position was that they expected the council to control their budget and reduce expenses, rather than make the residents pay for parking.
“We pushed them to it,” Smith admits. “We told the public that we are not putting in any cost-saving measures. We said: ‘We know times are tough, but we are going to make you pay.’”
In addition, the public stopped using the garage. Previously, it was typically filled to 95% capacity. After pay parking was installed, usage dropped to 6%. “Pay parking went in and the garage became a barren wasteland,” Smith notes.
The public outcry went on for six weeks, culminating in a shouting match at a City Council meeting. Finally, the council agreed to stop charging for parking in the garage, with plans to strictly enforce the three-hour time limit. The new $2 on-street parking rates stayed in place, however.
“We would have engaged the business owners and the public,” says Smith, when asked what she would have done differently if the council had come to her first. “We would have done some utilization studies in advance, to find out who was parking where. And we would have offered a suite of products with different rates.”
In fact, Smith presented that exact parking strategy to the City Council in September, and was granted permission to move forward with the plan.
The first step is to engage the public. Smith’s team will communicate the new parking plan via advertising in the local paper, speaking with actual users in the parking lots to gain pavement-level feedback. And in a unique twist, Smith plans to use Facebook as well.
One additional important move for the future, the council is investigating the possibility of setting up a parking authority for the city.
Lessons Learned
Everyone in Whistler learned a lesson in parking this year. The City Council learned that the public takes parking seriously. Many who utilized the garage were parking there every day. This was a part of their life. Change is part of life, too, but the council had to come up with a plan and communicate it properly to the public.
The council also realized that they were responsible to make changes in parking rates for the right reasons – not simply to treat parking as a “cash cow.”
Meanwhile, the residents of Whistler learned there is no such thing as free parking. Even when the user is not paying for parking, someone still has to pay for it. Although the people of Whistler retained their free parking garage for the moment, a new plan with variable rates is being implemented.
What some members of the public may not fully understand is that even when parking provided by the city is free to users, city residents are still subsidizing the parking through property taxes. In the end, the money has to come from somewhere.
Interestingly, Smith says on-street parking is down about 20% since the rate increase, so the 50% increase in the parking rate is clearly bringing in more revenue. The City Council will have to decide if it was worth the political price.
Pete Goldin writes for Parking Today and Parking World. He can be reached at pete@parkingworld.com.

Article Abstract from November, 2009




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