Exploring the Parking Issue in Downtown Victoria

There are many issues that divide Victorians. One of the most contentious is parking. Douglas talks to stakeholders from both sides of the argument: those who think there’s not enough parking and it’s too expensive, and those who believe there’s too much and it doesn’t cost enough.

Screenshot from City of Victoria Maps of the Johnson Street Bridge parking area.

Parking the car seems simple enough. You park as close as you can to your destination while paying as little as possible. If you have abundant time, are in good health and the weather is fine, you might save money by parking blocks from your dentist’s appointment. Pressed for time, you might pay $3 an hour to park nearby.

Problems arise, though, when thousands of drivers hunt for the most convenient and cheapest parking during prime periods, such as the holiday shopping season. In the middle of the night, you can park just about anywhere you want. In daylight, the week before Christmas, not so much.

Further complicating parking matters are many factors, including how to provide adequate parking for people with disabilities, commercial vehicles, taxis and, in the near future, ride-hailing vehicles and in the more distant future, autonomous vehicles. Parking is so complex that UCLA professor Donald Shoup wrote a 733-page book about it titled, The High Cost of Free Parking.

For the sake of argument, however, the parking conundrum boils down to two opposing perspectives: there’s not enough parking and it’s too expensive; or there’s too much parking and it doesn’t cost enough.

In Greater Victoria, those arguing the not enough/too expensive proposition include Paul Servos, co-owner of the Flag Shop Victoria on Fort Street, the Downtown Victoria Business Association and Langford Mayor Stew Young. Those arguing the opposite include Victoria transportation policy analyst Todd Litman, the Island Transformations Organization and Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

And caught in the middle are advocates for people with disabilities — like David Willows, who on his own initiative prepared a 51-page report on Victoria’s lack of accessible parking. [That is a whole other parking tale of its own.]

The Sunday Solution

Servos has no shortage of gripes about downtown parking, including how the city’s new bike lanes “butchered” parking availability.

“The availability of public parking is declining as a result of all the new construction and all the private lots disappearing,” Servos says. “I think it’s a real shame.”

While a number of private surface parking lots have been lost to development over the past five years, Bill Eisenhauer, City of Victoria head of engagement, says they have been replaced with underground parking in the developments themselves.

“Overall the total number of parking stalls in the downtown core has remained relatively unchanged for the past five years,” Eisenhauer says, referring to the number of City-managed public parking spaces in parkades and on-street and the total parking inventory managed in private lots and underground at commercial and residential buildings in the core.

This new parking is helping to satisfy some of the overall parking demand in the downtown, but it’s generally only available to people working or living in those buildings.

Servos also isn’t a fan of the City of Victoria’s recent initiative to charge for on-street parking in the downtown core on Sundays and use that money to give away bus passes for young people.

“OK, fine, pay for Sunday parking,” Servos says. “But why they absconded with the Sunday parking revenue to subsidize one of their social agendas is beyond me. That money could easily have been put into enhancing parking downtown.”

In an effort to address the parking situation, Servos ran for council in the 2014 election. He came in 16th place with 2,577 votes. Servos says he was considering running in the upcoming byelection, but has recently changed his mind.

“If all you want is coffee shops and pot shops that you can walk to, then knock yourself out,” Servos says. “But that makes for a pretty boring downtown.”

Availability Versus Cost

The Downtown Victoria Business Association (DVBA) polled its membership earlier this year and discovered that parking availability is the number one negative factor impacting businesses. Number two was the cost of parking. Meanwhile, real-time parking availability placed second among the top three elements to improve the downtown business environment.

parking in downtown victoria - exploring the parking rates in victoria
A price map of downtown Victoria.

According to the survey, 78.8 per cent, or 305 of the 387 respondents, ranked parking availability as a top four negative factor. More than half the respondents, 57.7 per cent, ranked it the most negative.

A majority of respondents, 52.3 per cent, rated the cost of parking as a top four negative factor, although only 18 per cent of those respondents ranked it number one.

DVBA Executive Director Jeff Bray says he’s confident the survey, which went out to about 1,000 of the organization’s 1,500 members, reflects what downtown business operators have said anecdotally about parking.

“But we never had anything that actually in any way quantified that,” Bray says.

“There’s no question in the last five years we’ve lost significant surface parking in downtown, almost all of it being private parking lots that have been redeveloped into commercial buildings and condos,” Bray says, adding that the bike lanes aren’t to blame. What Bray found most interesting about the survey were the responses to questions about what could be done to improve downtown.

“Now, given how prominent our members find the parking situation, it would have been very easy for them just to say, ‘Well, build more parking,’” Bray says. “What they actually said was if we had real-time parking availability information, that would really reduce the stress level our customers have with their coming downtown.”

So the DVBA is working with the City of Victoria on two ways to provide drivers with such information. One would be to incorporate parking data on the ConnectVictoria app to display on a dashboard how many spaces are available in real time at, for example, the Johnson Street parkade. The second would be to have signage on the major gateways to downtown that display those numbers of available spaces — similar to the message boards on the Patricia Bay Highway that show how full the ferry sailings are.

No Such Thing as Free Parking

Mayor Helps also noted that the City is working with the DVBA on such signage as part of a larger digital strategy. “Sometimes it’s not that there’s no parking,” Helps says. “It’s just that you don’t know where the available parking is.”

In the future, Helps envisions every downtown parking space having a digital sensor and your phone could alert you to an available space. “It beeps when you’re close to one and you go into that spot,” she adds. “So that’s a few years away.”

Nevertheless, Helps and Bray appear to have opposing philosophies about parking. Helps sees parking as one part of the overall transportation and mobility ecosystem. Bray says that the DVBA makes a distinction between the parking needs of commuters and customers.

“The economic incentive for me not to drive has been proven,” Bray says. “But it’s not that I’m taking the bus downtown. It’s that I’m driving somewhere else.”

At present, Victoria provides the first hour of parking for free in its parkades, which appeals to folks running quick errands. On-street parking rates range from $1.50 an hour to $3 an hour, Monday to Saturday, with the highest rates in the downtown core, and $1 to $2 an hour on Sundays. Those rates are comparable to those of Halifax, where parking is still free on weekends.

Helps, though, makes it clear that parking in the city is only going to get more expensive. “There’s no such thing as free parking, and the cheaper parking is, the longer people stay, the less parking there is,” Helps says, citing Shoup’s book.

That mirrors the position taken by Victoria transportation policy analyst Todd Litman, who wrote a 2006 book, Parking Management Best Practices, and recently updated its findings into a 92-page document called Parking Management Comprehensive Implementation Guide.

A Pricey Proposition

“Parking is actually an extremely costly resource,” Litman says, noting that the price of land in Greater Victoria now averages at least $1 million an acre — much more in urban areas. The 30 square metres for a parking stall isn’t a big deal in the countryside, he says. “But once you’re in a city, land is way too valuable to give away.”

The real cost of an urban parking space is about $1,000 a year, Litman estimates. Parkade spaces are even more expensive, costing $40,000 to $70,000 each just to build. And a typical car requires two to eight parking spots a year. That adds up to a huge subsidy for car owners, he argues.

“And yet our solution in the past is we assume that there is no big deal to require those costs to be borne by development,” Litman says.

That’s still the view of Langford Mayor Stew Young. When he was first elected mayor in 1993, Young pledged that parking would always be free in Langford. Twenty-six years later, he has kept that promise. He argues that development cost charges cover parking and that residents, in turn, already pay for parking through their taxes.

“My job is to make sure I have enough parking. Then, when I don’t, it’s my responsibility to make sure the business community, as they grow, pays for extra parking in the beginning,” Young says. “But I’m not going to charge their customers after they’ve already spent the taxes to put in the parking in the first place.”

Langford doesn’t even do much parking enforcement, preferring to issue warnings to respect a two-hour limit instead of writing tickets. “A $20 or $15 or $30 parking ticket to go get a coffee just doesn’t sit well with council, and it doesn’t sit well with the people of Langford,” Young says.

When parking issues do arise, Langford will respond by creating more parking spaces, including building parkades.

Litman, however, maintains it’s better to make each parking space “work harder” through better parking management. His guide lists 10 parking management principles and describes nearly two dozen specific strategies. They include unbundling the cost of parking from rents in buildings; favouring high-priority users such as delivery vehicles and people with disabilities; encouraging businesses with nighttime demand, such as restaurants, to share space with office buildings that need daytime parking and, as much as possible, have users pay for parking.

“Downtown Victoria or any really successful commercial centre is going to be better off [by] pricing parking,” Litman says. “So it’s actually designating Langford as sort of a secondary market. It will never become a primary market as long as they’re focusing on automobile transportation and not focusing on multimodal transportation.”

For the most part, Bray, Servos and Litman give Victoria good marks for its parking management, although Servos says there isn’t enough of it.

“Our position is that the City of Victoria, in the downtown area, is doing a pretty good job of managing parking,” says Eric Diller, president of the Island Transformations Organization, which also favours less parking as well as an end to minimum parking requirements for new buildings. “It is one of the only cities in North America that is doing demand-responsive parking.”

Also praising Victoria’s efforts is Carole Whitehorne, executive director of the 650-member Canadian Parking Association.

“I think that Victoria does a really good job,” Whitehorne said. “The parking structures are well looked after. Their rates and pricing seem to be what the economy can bear out there and still sustain the development.”

This article is from the February/March 2020 issue of Douglas.