Special Report: Parking

Scratching the Surface

A city's downtown core can have attractive destinations worth getting to or it can have abundant parking for people who want to drive to get there. It can't have both.

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 24, 2007

Raise the Hammer recently wrote about the Downtown Hamilton BIA's recommendation to add angled parking at Gore Park because they see a need for additional parking.

How can an organization of downtown businesses that need to attract people downtown to survive be so devastatingly ignorant about how cities work?

Downtown Hamilton has too much parking. Rates are among the lowest in Canada and many lots don't even fill up.

All those parking lots consume valuable land that might otherwise accommodate destinations that attract people to visit and live in the core.

By definition, land is at a premium downtown. The dense mix of people trying to exchange goods, services, amenities, and housing in a single place means the only way to fit everything is to maximize the available land.

This logic of density, of course, runs exactly counter to the logic of driving in personal cars, which requires plenty of space - for driving lanes, turn lanes, and above all else, parking.

A city's downtown core can have attractive destinations worth getting to or it can have abundant parking for people who want to drive to get there. It can't have both.

Parking Purgatory

I'm standing at the corner of John St. and Rebecca St. and all I can see in every direction is surface parking. It's 1:30 PM on a weekday, but the lot beside me is only about two-thirds full, despite its attactive pricing: maximum $3 per day.

Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around John St. and Rebecca St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)

John St. N. runs down this satellite image from the top right to the bottom left. Crossing it are (from top) Wilson St., Rebecca St., and King William St. The block framed by John, Rebecca, Hughson, and Wilson has no buildings at all - nothing but parking.

Big chunks of the city are the same: flat blocks with maybe one dilapidated building amid expanses of cheap surface parking. Another such area, Framed by Main St. W., Bay St., King St. W., and Hess St., is finally slated for some new development in a sea of parking that consumes more than half the available land area.

Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around Main St. W. and Bay St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)
Surface parking in downtown Hamilton around Main St. W. and Bay St. (Image Credit: Google Maps)

Try walking around these cheap parking zones. It's deeply disconcerting as a pedestrian to try and navigate a landscape with no placeness, nothing to frame your surroundings and give you a sense of scale.

Framing the Street

Good downtown streets have streetwalls. A streetwall is what emerges when multi-storey buildings are continuous, porous, and have little or no setback from the sidewalk.

Coupled with strategically placed street trees providing a canopy 'roof', that line of buildings makes the street feel like a grand indoor hall. (Indoor malls took this concept and interpreted it literally.)

It also encourages pedestrians to feel safer, not only because a robust streetwall is likely to draw many pedestrians, people watchers, and lollygaggers - what Jane Jacobs called "eyes on the street" - but also because there are few places for an assailant to hide.

In parking lot purgatory, by contrast, the brave pedestrian has to confront the simultaneous challenges of a unsettling openness and a surfeit of places for people to lurk (behind all those cars, of course), all in an environment with few or no other people in sight.

Last year, Hamilton's Downtown Renewal Department announced a number of infill projects that will do much to fill in the gaps of our under-utilized downtown land, but we still have a long way to go.

Parked in a Parking Mentality

Unfortunately, the members of the Downtown BIA are still stuck in the mindset that the city needs more parking so it will be easier for people to come downtown.

We don't need to guess whether this strategy will work. Go downtown and walk around the half-empty, block-busting parking lots interspersed with boarded-up buildings and the folly of this strategy becomes clear.

The more the city tries to add parking, the more real destinations are destroyed to make room, and the less incentive people have to bother going downtown at all.

Vibrant downtowns attract people no matter how hard it is to drive there. No one argues that having to pay $20 a day to park in downtown Toronto is hurting the core. Instead, it is thronged with people: walking, taking streetcars and subways, and cycling as well as driving. (When I hear people complain about driving in Toronto, I smile.)

Hamilton needs to eliminate all that wasteful surface parking. Replace it with mixed-use buildings that open onto the street. Build those streetwalls. Create a sense of place.

People will come to visit and to live, and when they do, they will bring a higher demand for transit with them, which will further reduce the need to drive.

The logic of parking is a vicious cycle. Reversed, it becomes a virtuous cycle.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 02, 2007 at 18:33:22

aha! Now I know what the downtown BIA is trying to do. They want to link the east and western parts of downtown at the Gore...those two aerial pics you show are separated by Gore Park and it's continuous streetwall and greenspace. Once it becomes a big parking lot we'll have some nice options from the east to the west in downtown Hamilton for parking.

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By Paul D (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2007 at 19:37:17

I agree Ryan what a well hole downtown Hamilton is it needs something, as a for instance things to do?

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By Sharchy (anonymous) | Posted February 05, 2007 at 21:04:38

The surface-parking situation in Hamilton has evolved out of a long history of bad planning on the part of the city and some of the lamest architectural projects to be executed in this country (Jackson Square, Hamilton Convention Center, Eaton Center, basically the entire center block scheme). The same strategies of development that were applied to Suburban malls were applied to the downtown.

An effective public transit system and less reliance on the automobile are essential to downtown renewal. The reason why is fairly simple. Developers want to make as much money as possible. When a developer executes a project and they need to provide 400 parking spaces for a 400 unit development the investment is not worth their time or money. They can easily build the exact same project in Toronto (with a much larger market) connected to public transit providing parking for about 150-200 cars (plus they can build much taller). This makes urban development far more economical since underground parking is one of the major costs in an urban development project. The formula is quite simple effective public transit equates to urban development. The more people using transit and the more reliance they have on it equates to less parking required hence surface parking development. Developers cannot simply rely on a ‘Hail Mary’ development not providing parking, as this is a huge financial risk. This Gore Park ‘scheme’ portrays more misunderstanding of the economics of urban development.

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By Guyincognito (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 12:25:18

Your missing a key point in your article; 'reasonable rates' are still not free and parking lots are still not right in front of where a person is going; and when it comes to me deciding if I'm going to go to ancaster, uppper james or downtown for a meal- downtown is least attractive because I will have to: pay for parking, park a medium distance from the resutrant I am going to attend and deal with ridiculus traffic that is only made worse by the recent addition of two way john and james street.

As for public transit; the city would have to pay me to take there public trasit system instead of taking my car. Having had to use public transit while I was in college I think I can safely say that trying to keep any schedule with it is borderline insane. Between the buses being terribly loud internally, up to two full stop times out of sync and finally with stops being infrequent to begin with, taking public transit in Hamilton is inviting disaster if you are on any sort of schedule at all. By comparison I much prefer the TTC to driving in toronto if I can catch the train out of hamilton in the morning.

Free parking downtown would at least eliminate one of the major reasons why I rarely visit there; and if one of the other two reasons could be assaulted (Either traffic flow or ability to park near things) then I would go more often.

You also seem to be missing the point that the STREETS are always full; and it is in fact impossible to find streetside parking; of course the myrad of lots in poor repair with no active monitoring, fees, and nowhere near anything useful are empty; if you park there you going to walk for a half hour to get anywhere, come back to a car that's been keyed, stolen, broken into, or all of the above, and pay for the privilidge; no thank you!

I at least agree with you that a properly constructed walking area would make parking a distance from your location a bit more tolerable- but on a cold or rainy day that means something like toronto's PATH system not a few trees against the streetwall.

Finally it's not like the city can just magically clap there hands and convert the downtown into a workable walking area; they'd like a fix that costs them realatively little; free parking, and rethinking the two way john/james (one lane going the opposite direction instead of two MAX, and no streetside parking anywhere up or down john or james...) are relatively cost free solutions that will have results.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 06, 2007 at 12:40:14

Guyincognito, check out Donald Shoup's book _The High Cost of Free Parking_ for a response to your claim that "free" parking is a "relatively cost free solution" to the problems of downtown or that it will have positive "results".

http://www.raisethehammer.org/article/07...

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By Guyincognito (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 14:53:06

Your missing a key point in your article; 'reasonable rates' are still not free and parking lots are still not right in front of where a person is going; and when it comes to me deciding if I'm going to go to ancaster, uppper james or downtown for a meal- downtown is least attractive because I will have to: pay for parking, park a medium distance from the resutrant I am going to attend and deal with ridiculus traffic that is only made worse by the recent addition of two way john and james street.

As for public transit; the city would have to pay me to take there public trasit system instead of taking my car. Having had to use public transit while I was in college I think I can safely say that trying to keep any schedule with it is borderline insane. Between the buses being terribly loud internally, up to two full stop times out of sync and finally with stops being infrequent to begin with, taking public transit in Hamilton is inviting disaster if you are on any sort of schedule at all. By comparison I much prefer the TTC to driving in toronto if I can catch the train out of hamilton in the morning.

Free parking downtown would at least eliminate one of the major reasons why I rarely visit there; and if one of the other two reasons could be assaulted (Either traffic flow or ability to park near things) then I would go more often.

You also seem to be missing the point that the STREETS are always full; and it is in fact impossible to find streetside parking; of course the myrad of lots in poor repair with no active monitoring, fees, and nowhere near anything useful are empty; if you park there you going to walk for a half hour to get anywhere, come back to a car that's been keyed, stolen, broken into, or all of the above, and pay for the privilidge; no thank you!

I at least agree with you that a properly constructed walking area would make parking a distance from your location a bit more tolerable- but on a cold or rainy day that means something like toronto's PATH system not a few trees against the streetwall.

Finally it's not like the city can just magically clap there hands and convert the downtown into a workable walking area; they'd like a fix that costs them realatively little; free parking, and rethinking the two way john/james (one lane going the opposite direction instead of two MAX, and no streetside parking anywhere up or down john or james...) are relatively cost free solutions that will have results.

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By Guyincognito (anonymous) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 15:03:51

Sorry about the double post; there's no repost protection from a screen refesh on this site: I read the other article and I don't believe it directly contradicts what I said; and actaully supports it, because I am not saying that free parking will cost nothing (Just less then installing and maintaining something like toronto's PATH system or a working public transit system) only that it will make the downtown seem more reasonable in comparison to upper james and ancaster for shopping and eating.

In fact the other part of the article actually supports one of my statements; by saying that underpriced street parking compared to lot parking causes up to 30% of traffic to be people 'looking for a spot', making there be free parking in lots instead of cheap parking on the streets and more expensive parking in lots will get motorists off the roads and into lots where they can labourously look for close spaces.

The problem with paid for parking in downtown is that no where else in the city do you pay for parking and the downtown does not currently offer anything either in value or selection that you cannot get elsewhere in the city without having to worry about traffic or paying a parking fee (And again, many lots downtown where you can can pay for parking are unmonitored and out of the way causing them to be risky places to leave a vehicle)

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 06, 2007 at 15:53:45

a couple quick points:

a) "downtown does not currently offer anything either in value or selection that you cannot get elsewhere in the city".

A typical week for me as a downtown dweller usually involves some or all of the following: - groceries at the market - time at the waterfront parks - shops, galleries and endless cappuccino's on James North - monthly, my wife and I have a date at a new bistro, restaurant, jazz venue etc.....

None of the above, plus all the other ethnic eateries, entertainment options, summertime patios (real patios in Hess, not a patio stuck in a huge parking lot in the meadowlands) etc.... can be found anywhere other than downtown.

b) Anytime we've taken our car anywhere downtown we've never had to park further away from our destination than the average Limeridge Mall visitor would in that vast parking lot. When special events or festivals are going on downtown and we know it's busier than normal we walk out our front door, across the street and catch the #8 York bus. Less than 5 minutes later we are at the Market or Gore or James Street etc.....

Hamilton needs to continue to enhance the living experience for those who live downtown. That will draw new residents, shops, services etc....and eventually will also draw 'tourists' from other parts of the city. I regularly hear of Hamiltonians driving to Toronto or Buffalo to 'vibrant' neighbourhoods for the day or evening. Paying much more for parking, walking a lot further etc.... it's not a deterrant at all when the downtown area is full of life and something for everyone. Hamilton is slowly getting there. More parking lots and one-way freeways will set us back 10 years. That would be a death spell at a time when things are visibly moving forward.

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By Bleedin'Heart (anonymous) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 03:13:28

If I didn't have to take 3 buses, & an hour plus of waiting time, I'd gladly take public transit downtown.
Oh yeah, since the buses don't run after church on Sundays, or much at all during 'not-rush hour', I guess no Sunday trips, no winter trips, & no after dark trips?
I'd LOVE to use public transit to go downtown! Can we get some?

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 17:09:17

yes, the HSR is slowly trying to catch up to demand. Bus-only lanes, express routes, more service and bus-controlled traffic lights will help. But, man, where do you live? Some people complain that every single bus in town goes downtown...You've got to take 3?? Perhaps in an area of the region like yours, it might be a while before transit is convenient.

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By Guyincognito (anonymous) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 18:05:00

well; as long as you live on the mountain; it will take 3 buses to get to anywhere which is not within walking distance of gore park. The buses that head down the mountain are; upper gague, mohawk, upper wentworth, and upper wellington.

The mohawk is infrequent, and involves either a transfer, or a long wait at lime ridge mall, otherwise if you don't live within walking distance of upper wentworth, upper wellington or upper gague you have to take an east west bus to get to one of those streets (Like the stonechurch); then, since the buses are never on time you will need to wait probabally about 30 mintues for your next transfer, with no bus shelter in sight; or a bus shelter with all 4 of its windows smashed and not replaced in two months. From there you head down the mountain and arrive in gore park; and if your locaiton is not within an easy walking distance of gore park, expect another 1/2 hour wait, and another ride- three buses.

Jason you say you live within 5 minutes of most locaitons you want to visit via the york bus; do you go out say 2 minutes before the arrival time, or do you bank on the fact that you live right on the bus line, and look out your window to see when the bus is comming; because my experience with the HSR is not so much that the ride takes a long time as transfers are always a long wait and the buses themselves are never on schedule. The fact that you live ON a bus line gives you an advantage that most people taking the HSR do not have; they will have to walk up from there respective sidestreet and most likely wait more then a full stop time for the next bus to arrive. In tempratures like these that's inviting brutal frostbite.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 07, 2007 at 22:19:47

interesting to hear these stories 'from the mountain'. that is a nuisance. BRT along Upper James and the Linc would help alleviate a lot of these problems. Yes, my street (Strathcona Ave) has a bus right on it. I use www.hamilton.ca/hsr to look up schedule times and I have all my regular routes programed into my cellphone - #8,7,5,1 . I know the #8 York is leaving Victoria Park at 8:06 every morning so I get ready, pop my head out the front door to take a look and basically walk out of my house as the bus is coming down the street. So, yes, it's a great convenience. Although, even if I lived on one of the sidestreets around here it wouldn't make that much of a difference. I see all kinds of people coming from around the corner 2 or 3 minutes before the bus arrives. That's what I do when I come home. I work at Main and Gage and catch the #5 on Maplewood and Prospect. I leave my office and arrive at the stop about 1-3 minutes before the bus comes. Mind you, that route comes every 5-10 minutes all day long so it's no big deal. I've never missed one though. Also, the Upper James, Kenilworth, College, Sanatorium and Upper Paradise all come downtown. Have you seen the city plans for BRT along the Linc, Rymal and North/South along Upper James to downtown and Hwy 20 to Eastgate? That would help you guys out a lot up there wouldn't it?

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By Guyincognito (anonymous) | Posted February 08, 2007 at 17:15:16

It will only help us out if the buses run anywhere approaching on time and transfers actually work.

Evidently when your actually in the downtown core the busses work pretty well; on the mountain, out in stony creek area or out twoards mac they are often VERY out of sync, and often canceled without notice or update on either the website or the bus check phone line.

And frankly, were the people who need to get downtown regularly, easily, and without the cost of getting there being more expensive then going somewhere else in the city in order for the downtown core to get that revitialization it needs/wants. I mean your already downtown, of course you'll go to local things there they are closer. But for myself; being on the mountain- ancaster, upper james, downtown and stoney creek are all about the same distance away by car (give or take 5 minutes on the linc), so about the same cost in gas to go to any of the major resturant hubs of the city- except that downtown presents the extra cost of parking, the extra walk of not being able to park right in front of the resturant/store in question, and the brutal traffic to actually get downtown before say 8:00 when the traffic clears up considerabally.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 08, 2007 at 17:32:17

funny...i was waiting for a bus today and an older, 80's bus was in front of me. The driver was changing the sign on the front and he scrolled through a bunch of beauties - 32 Garth, 45 Limeridge, 31 Fennell, 31C, 31D - yes, there were 3 Fennell buses. He went through a pile of them. I though, gee, it would be nice to have all these mountain routes back. Up Kenilworth goes along most of Fennell now, but that sucks for people who live by Up. Kenilworth. They have to go all the way to Mohawk College. The city needs high speed service along Mohawk (the street is wide enough for 2-car lanes each way and 1-bus lane each way) and Rymal. Bus lanes on Up Wentworth from Rymal to Limeride Mall and from Mohowk to Limeridge Mall would be very nice. Other than that, the HSR needs to look at increasing service as much as possible. Money is the issue of course. Hopefully we'll start seeing BRT soon. And bus lanes. The Mountain is full of these mega-wide turning lanes with almost nobody using them. Streets like Mohawk could easily house BRT lanes. And the Linc would be suitable on the shoulder or centre median shoulders. My church is at Garth and Limeridge so I regularly use the #35 College...it's always on-time and goes right downtown. I guess certain areas of the city are worse off, as they should be when people own 2 or 3 cars and wouldn't dare walk, cycle or use transit. Stuff like that weighs heavily on my decision of where to live. If/when we ever move I will make sure it's close walking, biking or bussing distance to city amenities. Quality of life is much more enjoyable.

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By trey (registered) | Posted February 09, 2007 at 12:26:27

with regards to Guyincognito's comments...

where do I start, do you even live in Hamilton?

Other places that charge parking are: 1 All around McMaster, in fact higher rates than downtown. 2 Concession 3 Mall Road (near Limeridge Mall's sea of free parking) 4 City lots in East Hamilton 5 Barton Street 6 Downtown Stoney Creek 7 Downtown Ancaster 8 Downtown Dundas

If you think Upper James and the Meadowlands are more convenient than downtown they I suggest you keep patronizing those locations. Because nothing will convince you otherwise, not event the truth. U James and Ancaster retail areas have lost all convenience factors for the sake of 'free' parking. I can park within steps of my destination on Concession and usually downtown. Sometimes it ends up being closer than the far flung spots at Limeridge Mall. Plus I get to exit my car onto a sidewalk (on street parking), which is far safer than playing 'Frogger' through the parking lots. Unless you are one who prefers to drive around for 20 minutes looking for a close spot only 'steps' to the door of the mall and then only to walk around inside for a couple hours. That makes no sense. Have you shopped at the new Mega Wal-Mart in Ancaster? You call that convenient? No thanks. I much prefer a pleaseant walk downtown to the market and hit several other destinations with only having to park once. Yes that is worth money to me. $3 bucks in spare change is well worth it. Your comment about 30 minute walk is ridiculous, you obviously have never done it. I park on Jaskson Street East behind the Landmark Tower and walk to the market and library in maybe 10 minutes max. Now I understand that 10 minutes of walking is a challenge for baby-boomers but its only because they don't do it.

I've never had my car keyed or vandalized downtown. But I can't say that for the Mountain. My car was side-swiped in a parking lot on U James and the jerk took off leaving a nice car length dent/scratch down the entire one side. Also a slashed tire in Meadowlands and a break-in a Limeridge Mall.

Here's a neat fact. Something I personally know to be true. Guess store in Limeridge Mall, Guess store on Yonge St Toronto... same product... higher price in Limeridge Mall... You know why? The rent/lease contains a premium for 'free' parking not included in the Yonge Street location.... extra over-head means the product is more expensive. Go figure.... suburban Hamilton retail commands higher prices than downtown Toronto. Why? because in Hamilton there is very little competition due to the residents not supporting anywhere other than Meadowlands, Limeridge or Upper James and the 'free' parking that you are so very fond of...

Wake up.

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