parking in downtown Ottawa

The car is a ridiculous thing in a city centre, in a dense people space.  Tonnes in weight, metres wide in dimension, it is a giant metal tank better suited to landing on an enemy-held beach than for urban transportation.  Imagine instead of your metal can that you carried around a cardboard box the size of a car on your shoulders with you, everywhere you went in a city.  The absurdity of using this giant container for a small individual in a dense urban fabric is only masked by the vast overallocation of space to parking.  A trend which is now reversing as we start to make cities for people again.

The New York Times has a great piece on how parking lots can be used as spaces for pop-up urbanism: Taking Parking Lots Seriously as Public Spaces.  Because these blank spaces in our city centres are less and less useful as car storage.  There is even an event, Park(ing) Day, when people reclaim street parking spots for citizen use as mini-parks or other fun things.

Ottawa has parking all over the place, including precious urban spaces like right next to the river beside Parliament.  Overallocation of space to parking is a general problem.  But there is a particular example that illustrates it.

The Museum of Nature didn’t have to reclaim a space from being used for parking: it already had a west lawn park.  What a great situation to be in.  A newly-renovated building just waiting to have a revitalised green space to highlight it as an urban jewel.

But the Museum took a remarkable position: it must have more parking.  Not “we will measure the demand for parking” or “we will prioritize citizen greenspace” but “we assume increased visitors means we must have new parking, and since underground would cost $10 million we don’t have, we’ll obliterate the west park instead”.

In the centre of a city, in 2012, this is ridiculous.

For a Museum of Nature, this is ridiculous.  For an institution devoted to science, to evidence, this is ridiculous.  For an organisation that is supposed to understand ecosystems as a whole rather than just looking at things in isolation, this is ridiculous.  When we know that adding capacity to the car transportation system just induces demand, this is ridiculous.

UPDATE 2012-05-22: The Museum of Nature posted a West Side Update (PDF) on May 17, 2012

the status quo [will] be maintained with respect to the west side. Therefore, given the current status, and until a conclusion is reached with the NCC, there will be no public information session at this time.
Over the next two months, improvements will be made to the west side as follows:

  •   A contractor will be hired to remove the surface gravel outside the parking area, add top soil and re-seed it using low- or no-maintenance grasses.
  •   Leftover concrete curbs will be removed from the site.
  •   The parking lot’s granular surface will be re-graded and compacted to remove ruts.
  •   Poop and scoop signs will be installed on the site for dog walkers.

As the process continues to unfold, the Museum will provide on-going updates, through advisories such as this one and updates on nature.ca. A public presentation will be considered when there are final plans to present.

The Museum also indicates an official subsite for the West Side: http://nature.ca/west

Much of the content is provided as PDF with content protection enabled (e.g. copying of text is blocked), which is unfortunate. The documents should be provided as standard HTML.

There is a presentation (PDF) that explains their thinking.

Some issues with the presentation:

  • There is a built-in assumption that parking must meet current and projected PEAK demand.  There is no indication that having a green space 365 days a year might be more important than meeting the peak demand that lasts roughly 3 months in the summer.
  • They measure the peak of the peak – that is the most parking used, in the busiest months.  What about averages and minimums?  Maybe they tell a very different story about the capacity.  What is, for example, the average daily use of the west parking lot, over the entire year?  I’m guessing it’s something like 20% tops.
  • There is no indication of using pricing to influence behaviour.
  • There is an assumption that if staff cannot get to work by alternative means, the Museum must provide parking for them.  I wasn’t aware that it was the job of the employer to permanently protect their employees’ choice of location to live and transportation.  (There is an entire slide devoted to this.)
  • There is no statement about a walk shed – that is to say, there is no statement about the maximum distance people should have to travel from their cars to the museum.  There are two slides showing “nearby” parking but they are not to the same scale and in general all of the map views omit a clear scale.
  • There is no indication that, what with a childhood obesity crisis, it might be good to incentivise people to walk a bit.  They appear in “Loss of Privately Operated Parking Lots in Last 2 Years” to be indicating 350m as “Near the Museum” (it’s not entirely clear to me what they’re pointing at, the arrow is over Staples).  If I extend that to 450m, I get the lot at O’Connor & Gilmour and oh look big surprise, it’s completely empty in Google satellite view

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If I extend it to 600m I get the lot at Kent & Gilmour and oh look, it’s completely empty in Google satellite view
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In fact as I show farther down in this post, there are all kinds of empty parking lots all over Centretown.  A healthy city that didn’t say, want its children to die in car crashes (the single biggest killer of young adults in Canada) or didn’t want its children to suffer the health consequences of obesity might want to prioritise a park and walking over storage space for cars.

This is the public space the museum claims in its slide deck to want, in some hazy distant future (image below from the Centretown Community Design Plan)

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The way to get to that goal is to JUST MAKE THE PARK NOW.

  • In the presentation there is a meaningless comparison of parking capacity with other Ottawa museums, as if site location meant nothing.  You might as well compare suburban mall parking with downtown store parking and then conclude that downtown stores need to be surrounded by parking lots.

ENDUPDATE

It seems official Ottawa is only able to think of buildings as containers, not as part of a surrounding environment.  The new Museum of Nature is beautiful inside, but step west and it turns into ugliness, gravel, neglect.  It seems if we teleported most government buildings into the middle of a suburban mall parking plaza, they wouldn’t skip a beat.

There are many many ways to deal with the invented west parking lot problem.  The first as mentioned would have been to create a beautiful park and then measure parking demand and compare it to park use.  Another would be to close the west parking (e.g. one month open, one month closed, repeat a few times) and see if it makes any impact on visitor numbers.  Another would be to discourage parking longer than a “standard” visit time, for example $10 to park for less than 3 hours, $50 for 4 hours, $100 to park all day and then see how much “demand” you have.  Another would be to count the actual use of the parking lot and report that data to the public, noting both 1) employee use of the lot–which incidentally is subsidized for them–and 2) long-term parkers (UPDATE 2012-05-22: It appears they collect some of this data.  ENDUPDATE).  Another would be to report year-over-year maintenance and staffing costs for the parking lot (plowing, cleaning, etc. etc.) compared to the cost of creating a garden idyll on the west lawn.  Another would be to look around for parking alternatives.  Like say right across the street.

Opus right across the street has underground parking (I guess the Museum can’t do a deal with them).  And Hulse, Playfair, McGarry kitty-corner has an empty lot most of the time (I guess the Museum can’t do a deal with them).  Plus which there will possibly be a condo with underground parking where the McGarry lot is now.  Or as you will see, lot after lot in downtown Ottawa stands empty or near-empty, outside of Monday-Friday 9-5, as Ottawa’s core is a commuter core.  Which means that in the main visiting hours for the museum THERE IS LOTS OF PARKING EVERYWHERE.

Have a look (this is just me walking around downtown, I didn’t have to go to any special effort to find empty lots):

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Tommy & Lefebvre lot a block away from the Museum is almost always empty.
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Dominion-Chalmers church lot
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Hulse, Playfair, McGarry is kitty-corner to the west lawn
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And here’s the essential west parking lot, which at 7 cars, had more people sitting in its neglected surrounding benches than it had cars in the lot (Sunday May 13, 2012 at 1:24PM according to my iPhone)

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Note the completely neglected grass around the parking lot.

In case you think I hit upon an off day, here’s @BytownBanner observing 5 cars in the lot, on Victoria Day (Monday May 21, 2012)

[Aerials by Chuck Clark removed.]

And here are more images from Google aerials, just to show even more empty parking (and to show I get the same results when Google chooses the images as when I walk around).

The useless Beer Store lot
Screen Shot 2012-05-21 at 7.57.25 PM

Kent & Gilmour
Screen Shot 2012-05-21 at 7.58.28 PM

Derby & Gilmour
Screen Shot 2012-05-21 at 7.58.50 PM

In conclusion: there is no shortage of parking in Centretown, and even if there was, the Museum has put forward no weak measurements, no actual weak evidence of parking demand, and it hasn’t provided any analysis of the tradeoff between parking lot (a use which seems to attract very few cars and whose value would be debatable even if it did) and park (a use which even in its dilapidated state draws people and whose value is clear).

Close the parking lot. Test the results. And then when they prove you don’t need the lot, own up to your failure and make it into a park. Again. And by the way you might want to stop subsidizing parking for your employees.  And this holds generally for everyone downtown.  Jan Gehl, who spoke at the Museum of Nature about urbanism (yes, quite ironic) insists that you must disinvite the car from the city, in order to make it a place for people.  That a Museum of Nature would instead chose to have its grounds be a parking lot in 2012 fills me with puzzled sadness.  There are others who agree – Facebook: Canadian Museum of Nature Needs Park Space not a Parking Lot.

One thought on “parking in downtown Ottawa

  1. Pingback: the message of parking – Museum of Nature | Manifesto Multilinko 2

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