On June 18, the City of Windsor held consultations for the Downtown Transportation plan at the Windsor Aquatic Centre, downtown. The goal of this meeting was to seek public input on how the City should proceed with managing transit flows into and out of the downtown. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend but I do have some thoughts to share.
There has been a lot of talk about separated bike lanes in Windsor and Detroit particularly in the wake of recent deadly car vs cyclist accidents. Although it is impossible to create separated space on every road one idea is to get cyclists off of major streets and give them streets dedicated to them. Two years ago I lived in Vancouver and was introduced to the idea of residential/neighbourhood bike-ways. These are streets that run parallel to major thoroughfares on which bicycles have priority. Car are still allowed to drive and park on these streets but in order to discourage automotive traffic from these streets, every few blocks at intersections there are obstacles placed in the form of roundabouts, speed bumps, or islands that force cars to slow or turn off the road all together but allow bicycles to proceed unimpeded. On these streets, cars have to stop at intersection, bikes only yield; and bikes have the overall right of way. If you examine a map of Vancouver’s extensive bike infrastructure, you find these streets situated next to high traffic arteries throughout the city. By taking bikes off of busy streets to secondary roads and taking cars off of secondary roads both journeys are improved.
Although Windsor’s road network is not as well designed as Vancouver’s, there is no reason why certain side streets like Pelissier Street from Chatham Street to Tecumseh couldn’t be modified to be a bike priority street as a part of the Downtown Transportation Plan. The island on Giles could be extended to block through traffic, the same could be done at Erie St. and Wyandotte St. On these “obstacles” gardens, planters or sculptures could be placed to green and beautify the cityscape while also altering traffic flows. Similar plans could be made for Chatham street through the Downtown towards Walkerville. Beyond downtown are there are a number of secondary city streets (Kildare near Walker; California next to Huron Line) that run parallel to major thoroughfares throughout the city could be adapted to support this purpose.
Cost of Parking
There has been some debate about whether or not there is sufficient parking in the downtown core. With 4,490 parking spots supervised by the city in Windsor (this number excludes private lots) the city is not short on parking spot as a whole. Although I do not know the exact number of spots in the downtown, the bulk of municipal garages are in the downtown which handle almost 1,500 spots along with metered street parking. The question becomes if we want to create a healthier city that encourages people to get out of their cars, is added parking spots to the downtown the solution? I would assume that the Downtown BIA and some/many of the downtown businesses would argue that they need lots of free/cheap parking to attract people downtown, unfortunately this argument doesn’t hold water in my opinion. If a business offers a product that attract’s customers, then they will come regardless of the parking situation if the business is relying on free parking to attract customers than their business model is flawed at its core.
In my opinion, the debate about the number of parking spots is the wrong debate, what should be debated is whether are paying enough for parking not just in the downtown but in the city as a whole. Free parking comes with huge costs to society, just to create a parking spot costs thousands of dollars in land, labour and materials. If these spots are not going to be available for all of society to utilize then why are taxpayers being as to pay for them? Simply put if parking is expensive people will find other ways to get downtown. With the University moving downtown we should not be encouraging those students and faculty to drive cars and park in what are potentially crowded parking lots. We should be encouraging public transport biking and most importantly get people moving downtown. Unfortunately, the city’s development charge by-laws, which were updated earlier this year, fails to tackle this issue by having flat rates for parking at $71 per house (transit by comparison is $117 per house) which is little more than a subsidy for people to park on the streets for free in the suburbs and to drive downtown at cost to society.
So what is the solution? I haven’t been able to find publicly available empirical data that illustrates the free parking in municipal garages (first hour) and on the street on Sundays/Holidays drives people to the downtown to shop, dine or spend time. Maybe it is time to re-evaluate these costs, and maybe even raise them in some cases. Then there are more creative ideas like, what about giving the options to shop owners of buying the parking spots in front of their buildings and let them bare the costs of policing and maintaining the parking? Or just removing street parking on some streets and using the space for separated bike lanes? Maybe over the long term, we remove the spaces, expand sidewalks to enable expanded patio that could (optimistically) operate 9 or 10 months a year.
My grandparents used to live on Byng road south of Somme Ave and in the late 1990s/early 2000s they had the opportunity to buy out the alleyway behind their house. This trend continued in 2013, when the Windsor Star reported that the City wanted to divest from the back alleys in the City. Yet for some reason the downtown is littered with back alleys that are poorly kept, magnets for crime and distracting eyesores. I know that United Way funded neighbourhood development groups like The Initiative: Glengarry to Marentette and the Downtown Windsor Community Collaborative have taken it upon themselves do conduct back alley clean ups yet they can only do so much. With kilometres of alleyways the city should be selling these spaces off to existing property owners, or transforming them into pedestrian friendly spaces that are well lit and well maintained.
Back in May, I was in Saskatoon and I saw an example what some of these alleys could be. Although I didn’t take a picture at the time I pulled this one off of Google Maps and it shows what these alley ways could be. When I was there, the construction had been completed, local artists had turned the alley into an impromptu studio to sell paintings while people at and drank coffee on benches and at tables. Malden Lane offers an example of what could be done to other alley ways in the downtown, but the job isn’t a small one.
To compound the issue not every alley way is conducive to support pedestrian walkway or bike-ways but that doesn’t mean we should try. For home owners, adding to their property size is a win-win as more yard space not only increases property values but will increase community awareness and maintenance of these areas through ownership. There are a number of alleyways are adjacent to restaurants and bars, given the new patio bylaws some may be interested in buying out alleyways next to their businesses as space to open a permanent patios. Back in Vancouver, Telus as a part of their new Headquarters is converting and revitalizing alleyways around their offices to make them pedestrian walkways through the heart of the downtown of one of the most expensive cities in our county. There is little reason why the city can’t revitalized some of the local alleyways and/or incentive local businesses to take care of them, this is certainly preferable to the current state of leaving them for garbage pickup, shady dealings and rats.
Beyond the Downtown
The challenge with undertaking this downtown transportation plan is that not all of the eventual outcomes can be immediately implemented in the city core or across the city. Fundamentally speaking Windsor’s transportation problems extend far beyond the downtown. I didn’t bother addressing issues like public transit or regional transit (which are posts/research projects in their own right) and the broader questions of how we are going to keep people living in Windsor need to be consider. Simply put if the declines in our city’s population are not stemmed, it won’t matter if we make improvements to transportation in the downtown as people will live in the suburbs of LaSalle, Tecumseh etc. and have to drive into the city. With over 90.4% of people reporting to Statistics Canada that they get to work as a driver or passenger in a private motor vehicle (not public transport) a broader discussion needs to be had to how to get people out of their cars in our region.