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Technology possible solution to downtown Nanaimo's parking problems

“Smart” technology that helps drivers find empty parkade spaces and sends alerts when meters are about to expire could be the future of parking in downtown Nanaimo.

The City of Nanaimo is creating a new parking management strategy to help combat the community’s traffic congestion hot spots, from the hospital area to the downtown core.

While the strategy and its recommendations are still in the early stages, it’s expected to outline options to better manage traffic, fill parkades and speed up turnover in popular areas like Commercial Street. Ideas range from resident-only parking to more meters on high-use streets and “smart technology” in parkades.

Rod Davidson, the city’s parking services manager, says his division is looking at LED signs in parkades that tell drivers how many stalls are available and blinking red and green lights that direct people toward empty spots. A new user-pay system and enforcement technology is also on the table, but Davidson said money wouldn’t be spent on upgrades to parkades until the city sees occupancy surge to 85 per cent.

The city’s downtown parkades currently range from being 50 to 75 per cent full. “The aim for us is to make the parking experience as easy as we can for people visiting the downtown,” Davidson said.

“We don’t want [them] to have to drive around the block six times waiting for people to leave.”

The parking management plan is the latest shift since the city moved parking in-house last year, following an ambassadorial approach to the ticketing and dispute system.

Davidson said the strategy will look at recommendations from a 2010 report, and suggestions from stakeholders like the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association.

The biggest complaint seems to be that there is no parking downtown, he said, adding the issue is only perceived.

“In reality there is adequate or abundant parking downtown, just not on the main street,” he said. “Our challenge is to try to direct people toward the parkades.”

Metered parking where stalls were previously free is one tactic to push people toward underground parking, according to the parking manager, who says they could also consider resident-only parking in downtown neighbourhoods. Other potential changes could include paying for meters by cellphone, apps that alert people to expiring meters and a new user-pay system that would see people punch in their licence plate numbers.

Anything to help the parking situation is welcomed by the Downtown Nanaimo Business Improvement Association, which says perceived lack of parking is the No. 1 reason keeping people away from the downtown core. But they aren’t sold on the new ‘smart technology.’

Automated post-pay parking is also an option, says city Coun. Bill McKay.

Smart parking seems to be more of the ‘same old’ and sounds expensive with licence-reading technology and “lights over the top the spot that say ‘I am free and you can park here,’” he said.

“Next thing you know you have a $50,000 software maintenance contract you have to sign.”

The parking management strategy is being worked on in partnership with the city’s transportation advisory committee and is expected to be presented to council in late spring.

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