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The parking myth

For years, many people have believed downtown Halifax has a parking problem. They’re wrong.

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Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Waye Mason recently had a run-in with an angry constituent. The man was furious because he received a parking ticket for sitting in a no-parking zone for 20 minutes. His argument? He should have got a break, because everyone knows there’s no downtown parking.

“The attitude in HRM is that there is no parking downtown, ever,” says Mason. “But is there really no parking? Or is there just no parking right in front of the restaurant you want to eat lunch at?”

The reality is, there’s plenty of parking in downtown Halifax—for those who are willing to park off the street. Earlier this year, Mason worked with the Spring Garden Area Business Association and the Downtown Halifax Business Commission to gather the data that proves it.

They conducted the survey in May. The team contacted all of the off-street parking owners and determined that on average, there were 796 off-street stalls available at lunchtime, all within a five-minute walk to Grand Parade. And that doesn’t include the Casino parking or the parking lot on the far side of Bishop’s Landing (those lots fall just outside the five-minute mark). Those two parking lots alone represent an extra 600 or 700 spots. They also found 350 more available spots within five minutes of Spring Garden. According to their survey, there were 7,449 parking spaces downtown. 1,380 of those were still free at lunchtime.

Mason also went on a walk-about with members of the Argyle Entertainment District, the Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association, the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia, and the Downtown Halifax Business Commission. During their walk, they examined the on-street parking, identified issues and assessed whether or not the city is using the available space as efficiently as possible. Mason wrote a memo on May 29, 2013 that states they found about 15 headless parking metres, and a few areas where loading and parking areas could be altered. But, according to the memo, “overall, most blocks were well covered, with just a few places where changes could be considered.”

For many Haligonians it’s not just about availability, it’s also about the cost. But not only does downtown Halifax offer free, on-street parking after 6:00 p.m. and on weekends, there are also opportunities to validate your parking at local retailers. For example, customers who spend more than $20 at Pete’s Frootique on Dresden Row can park free in the City Centre Atlantic parkade for up to two hours.

But when Halifax is compared to London, Ontario, it still doesn’t compare favorably in terms of cost. According to London’s Visitor’s Guide to City Parking, London’s parking lot rates are fairly consistent at $2 an hour, but the daily rates are lower than they are in Halifax. In London, a full eight hours of parking ranges from $4 to $7 total. But in Halifax, although $2 an hour is fairly typical, drivers pay that $2 per hour up to a set daily maximum. At the Scotia Square parkade, that daily maximum is $20, the Salter Street maximum is $16, and the City Centre Atlantic maximum is $15. So while short-term parking is comparable, Haligonians who want to park for a full eight hours will typically pay around $5 more per day than London residents.

Ahsan Habib is an assistant professor at Dalhousie’s School of Planning. He compared Halifax’s parking challenges to Hamilton, Ontario’s. “Hamilton is doing a better job than Halifax in terms of bringing people into town by transit,” he explains. “Hamilton has a very good downtown terminal, and that makes it easier to bring a lot of people in. But they also have much less on-street parking availability than we have in Halifax.” He adds that Halifax’s transit system has good coverage, but only a few of the routes are direct, so they can’t compete with a car in travel time. Which means that there are still a lot of people who want parking when they go downtown.

He also compares Halifax to Toronto. “Halifax has very liberal parking rates and free parking availabilities, particularly around the Common,” he says. “It’s unthinkable in most capital regions.”

Downtown businessman Carman Pirie says he’s never heard a single complaint from a client. He’s a principal at Kula Partners, an inbound marketing and web design agency that lives on Grafton Street. He echoes Mason’s statement that people seem to want it all when it comes to parking. “People seem to want Halifax to feel more like Annapolis Royal, and I just don’t see that as a reality for a modern city,” he says. “Halifax is often called the largest small town in the world. I think there’s something to that in a charming, nice way. But maybe that extends to our views on parking. I don’t dispute that a retail business would find the public opinion on parking challenging.”

Mason says that although there’s no shortage of parking, a true problem has been created for the city because of the public’s perception of downtown parking availability. “Even the restaurateurs are telling their patrons, the public…that there is no parking,” he explains. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. All of those empty parking stalls should be filled with happy customers going to restaurants and stores. But they’re not, and that’s partly because people have been scared off from downtown.”

But Mason has plans to address the misconception. Over the last few months, there have been new signs popping up downtown, pointing the way to off-street parking. He’s also investigating ways to work with businesses to recreate something similar to what Pete’s Frootique is offering. “We’re looking at whether or not we can sell parking passes to stores,” he says. “For example, you could go downtown, shop at Biscuit, and buy a $100 dress. Biscuit would give you a parking pass, and you would get an hour or two of parking. We’re going to work towards something like that.”

Mason says if people want more parking, they need to use the lots that already exist. “There are simply no more downtown streets that we can safely add on-street parking to,” he explains. “In order to justify spending more money on more parking, we need to see more cars in the parking lots we already have.”

  • Matthew

    Why do people constantly compare Halifax and London, Ontario? (I’ve heard the same comparison on other issues, including investment spent on public-works projects.)

    They’re similarly sized, but vastly different in other important respects–notably, London is a tertiary city of only minor regional importance , whereas Halifax is the defacto regional capital. Comparing Halifax to Toronto, and scaling down commensurately to compensate for the size difference, makes more sense.

  • Dan Dean

    If parking in downtown Halifax was not a problem Burnside would not be seeing the growth it had been enjoying for the past 10 years. Personally I avoid the downtown for three reasons, 1 Parking, 2 High Prices, and the good restaurants are moving to the suburbs.

  • John C.

    For residents who regularly need to do business or visit the downtown core as a requirement of their daily lives, the cost of downtown parking is a severe burden. There is lots of off street parking, it just is not cost effective if one needs to use it more often than a few time during the year. Try attending multiple meetings at City Hall every week, to try to say on top of municipal affairs. Most meetings run 2 hours or more, and for parking close to City Hall that means Scotia Square if you want to find parking close at hand without having to regularly leave these meetings to plug a parking meter. Not inexpensive at all. There should not be a financial impediment for residents who wish attend public meetings held at City Hall. So what is the solution for the concerned citizen who wants to attend these meetings without having to spend a significant part of their family budget to do so. Parking far away and taking a regular bus in to City Hall only works if one wants to give up the whole day to the evolution; but if one still has to get back to work it is not effective solution.

    Perhaps a few park and ride (P&R) locations with with a connecting express bus service whose fares are incorporated into the P&R parking fee…. the parking ticket stub would act as a round-trip ticket for the express bus. The express bus operational hours would cover off City Hall business hours. This P&R and express bus solution would also work well for many downtown office workers, and get less vehicles traveling into the downtown core area.

    Creatively the P&R locations could be built underground, beneath existing open space and community parks recreational spaces; the open space, and parks would still exist above these P&R structures. The time it would take to pay back the development costs of such P&R locations would not be short term due to the reduced parking charges, but the benefits to HRM would be equally long term.

  • Jeffrey Pinhey

    The story only says what anyone who actually uses the downtown has known for ages. There are lots of parking spaces available downtown. And within the same distance people often end up parking from the door of the mundane foreign owned chain restaurant they go to in Bayers Lake. Most (sure, not all) of the time, I drive to the place I am going and park in front. I think about it this way: That spot is for that business. Many people look for places with less optimism, farther away, but those spots are already taken by someone at another business there.

    One beef I have is needing change for a meter. Most modern municipalities have credit or debit card based metres or pay and display systems. I sometimes end up risking a ticket simply because I have no change.

    My second beef is the questionable Provincial policy of not opening up the Waterfront Development parking lots after work hours, and continuing to charge for their use 24 hours a day. HRM does not ticket at meters after 6 pm or on weekends, but our beloved Waterfront “Development” Corporation does. This one small change would see hundreds of free spots open up within 5 minutes or less walk for evening restaurant and retail business. And remember, it may be a walk up the hill to eat, but it’s an easy return to your car with a full belly.

    That one policy, in itself, should generate enough of an outrage that we start questioning why the Province is interfering and controlling key land use in HRM – do they think they are there to run a cutthroat surface parking lot business?

  • Steve Dinn

    It would be awesome if we could have a parking meter system like Montreal. Their online payment system means there is no more need for coins, and it can even notify you if your meter’s time is about to expire — and you can then top it up right from your smart phone!

  • Jessie Legate

    Just got a ticket for parking in bus stop at the commons. My car was far enough in front of the sign that I couldn’t touch the sign and my car at the same time… and I’m 6’3″

  • A study. In May. For how long? A one-day walk-about…even a first year statistics student in university would crack up laughing. Let’s see a real survey, over a 4-6 week period, varying times of day, seasonally adjusted. A little happy walk about with a hot cup of Tim Horton’s coffee is not a survey. This is a) terrible reporting with no investigation and b) utterly inaccurate…on just 2 days I had a 10 minute walk from my parking space to a lunchtime restauratnt..in summer, during peak vacation period.

  • Sarah Sawler

    Hi Giles, I responded to you on Facebook, but I thought I’d respond to you publically as well. When I wrote the article, I was simply reporting the facts and opinions of my sources. I chose people with no reason to feel strongly one way or another (with the exception of Waye Mason, but an article on something like downtown parking needs Waye Mason). It’s unfortunate that you didn’t like the results, but this is what came out of speaking to three solid sources. It would have been irresponsible for me to introduce a bias that didn’t reflect my sources’ views. This isn’t an op-ed piece, and the study I mentioned was a city study (not mine). This was stated clearly in the article.

  • I realize this is an older article, but the issue is still relevant. (Plus it’s the first thing that popped up on google, while searching for a solution). It might be somehow justifiable to say the price is fair to the people who have to pop in to downtown for shopping, or a bite. But what about around the universities or hospital where people need to find parking roughly 5 times a week?

    Monthly parking at dal is around $250 a month. You might save a bit by finding a meter, but you will also likely be getting up in the middle of a class and losing about 10 minutes of time. This is both financially straining, and disrupting for students.

    Those who work in hospitals can try and arrive early enough to find a free spot 5-10 mins away. But these are limited hot commodities. Paying for the parkade is $14.50/day and that cost adds up quickly in a month.

    I believe the best solution would be to reduce the need to drive/park. More park & rides with express buses that leave frequent (and early) enough!

    I personally would love to take public transport if it did not double commuting times, and risk waiting in the cold for 20 minutes.

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