BY AARON DIXON
Want a thriving downtown? Stop accommodating cars.
Before you scoff at such an idea as something only a cyclist might say, you’re correct, I’m someone who chooses to get around by bicycle. But I’m also a student pursuing a master’s degree in urban planning and I’ve learned a thing or two about cities.
I didn’t say ban cars, I said stop accommodating – there’s a difference.
Ever since Nanaimo’s development pattern trended towards sprawling plazas, mega-malls, and single-family subdivisions out on the periphery, personal mobility necessitated driving and the city’s downtown became neglected.
Abandoned buildings, vacant lots, and homelessness have compounded over the years and aren’t relenting.
Any time discussions on how to reinject vibrancy back into Nanaimo’s struggling core ramps up, the topic of finding parking for the projected influx of cars arises, as if more cars are the ultimate representation of revitalization. This kind of discourse is missing the point, which should be aimed at attracting people, not cars.
An overabundance of space for cars doesn’t equate to vibrancy, in fact, it detracts from it. Providing amenities to one mode can interfere with the proliferation of others.
Our rules are mostly to blame. Policy dictates that every development within the city must provide a minimum amount of parking. There’s a lot of space within the city dedicated to storing cars. Not to mention very expensive for developers and consumers who end up paying for all this parking even if it’s labelled as ‘free’ – it’s never truly free but rather heavily subsidized by everyone, including cyclists.
The parking bylaw needs to be more progressive if space for humans is to be prioritized over space for cars because currently, 88 out of every 100 Nanaimoites still drive each day, while only one out of 100 ride a bicycle and only one out of 40 ride transit. The downtown is also home to several very large and valuable multi-level parking structures and two giant surface parking lots at either end, with rates, if any, that are far below supporting any recouped costs to build or maintain. The encouragement to drive to downtown is clear, so why is it so lifeless?
If there’s one lesson that has stuck with me during my time as a graduate student, it’s the concept of induced demand. This dilemma occurs after the construction of an additional highway travel lane for the intention of curbing congestion. Temporary relief ensues, but because driving is made easier, more people begin to drive, which eventually creates more congestion – a futile endeavour. In 1955, urban planner Lewis Mumford said this about induced demand: “Building more roads to prevent congestion is like a fat man loosening his belt to prevent obesity.”
The same concept applies to parking.
So much emphasis has been placed on providing car parking in the downtown area as the ultimate attractant to motorists that we’ve displaced opportunities for creating exciting spaces for people. Planners need to focus primarily on placemaking elements that will entice people to the downtown rather than be controlled by how our car culture will be catered to, because paving over paradise is too easily a one-way street to motordom.
By changing the formula so that car-parking is limited, and exciting spaces are abundant, it correspondingly shifts our mobility behaviour towards enjoying our bicycle again or riding public transit. Changing our mobility paradigm would alleviate congestion, reduce noise and air pollution, decrease environmental degradation, be economically responsible, and would make you healthier. It’s not just downtown revitalization, it’s self-rejuvenation.
Aaron Dixon is a graduate student in the master’s of community planning program at VIU.