What if Kingston…

Kingston, Ontario, Downtown Kingston, Free Parking, ParkingLast weekend I was in a downtown shop and overheard a customer inquiring about parking.  This person (who I assumed was from out of town) wanted to know if there was any sort of free parking initiative in downtown Kingston leading up to the holidays.  The retailer almost laughed out loud and directed the shopper to the nearest metered lot. This unwelcoming parking issue has deterred a lot of shoppers from spending their money in our downtown core. Their solution?  To do their shopping at the mall or the RioCan where there are lots full of free parking to be had.  Obviously this mentality raises concerns for the longevity of our downtown businesses – most of which are locally owned and operated.

For those who are able, adding a 1 or 2 minute walk to your plans for the day will open up a large area where downtown parking is free.  Free parking can be found north of Princess on streets like Bagot, Sydenham, Ordnance, Bay and Colborne.  Of course, this isn’t an option for everyone and isn’t ideal on weekdays due to parking by-laws that require us to move our vehicle to the other side of the street twice a day.  That being said, shopping in the west end isn’t always a piece of cake either.  Just getting into the parking lot at the Cat Centre during holiday shopping season can be a patience-testing endeavour, followed by the ever frustrating act of circling the lot and following other shoppers to their cars.

More importantly, I think we can all agree that in an ideal world, we would all be able to do our holiday shopping in downtown Kingston.  I don’t imagine there is any Kingstonian who doesn’t want a thriving downtown.  What if Kingston offered free downtown parking during the holidays?

Many other Ontario cities are doing just that, or a variation on it.  From November 24th-December 24th, Hamiltonians enjoy free downtown parking all day, everyday.  Barrie gives its downtown shoppers two free hours of parking before they have to feed the meter during the month of December, and Burlington offers three free hours.  Not all free parking initiatives are focused on the holidays either.  The City of Guelph has free downtown parking year-round to keep its local businesses thriving.

Some will argue that the revenue lost from free parking is enough to quash the idea before it even gets to the table.  Free parking could also be taken advantage of and used for the wrong reasons.  The intention is to get people downtown to frequent our shops and restaurants, not to visit friends who live in the area.  On the other hand, free parking can also entice those who normally hit the big boxes, or even cross the border to do their shopping, to come downtown and give their business to local retailers.

Because of the large population of Kingstonians who live downtown, entirely free parking is likely not an option for our city.  Too many folks would see this as an opportunity to leave their cars for hours on end without adding anything to the local economy.  Perhaps, though, Kingston would be a good candidate for free short-term parking. Nothing fancy: 1 hour free daily for the month of December.  It’s a small gesture that could have a big impact on our downtown businesses.  As the mall grows and the rent goes up downtown, we see beloved local shops disappearing.  The city needs to step in and give Kingstonians good reason to come downtown again.

Thanks to Brad Herman for today’s photo.

Danielle Lennon

Danielle Lennon is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. She was the Editor, Community Event Coordinator and Contributor at-large (2008-2018). She is otherwise employed as a section violinist with the Kingston Symphony, violin teacher, studio musician and cat lover. Learn more about Danielle...

7 thoughts on “What if Kingston…

  • Parking is free in downtown City lots every Saturday in December, beginning this Saturday, December 6th.

    • This is a great start! Would be nice to see that expand to metered parking and weekdays as well.

  • I think the conversation about parking is misguided. People often imply that paid parking is the cause of failing businesses. Some say that they don't go downtown because of paid parking or trouble finding a parking space. While this may be true to a small degree, I think the conversation about a "thriving" downtown needs to shift to how is the retail landscape changing, and also people need to recognize how free parking and the availability of parking are tied.

    a) Retail is volatile right now and to claim that parking is the reason downtown businesses fail misses the bigger picture (I know you specifically haven't done this, but if you ever read comment threads on Whig articles when a downtown business closes, many people do). For people who think paid parking is the problem, look at the Rican Centre and the vacancies there. Sure most of the anchor tenants hang on, but the little ones are often going in and out of business. Or look at Sears on a Canada-wide scale… there is a retailer whose model typically involves large-format with free parking, and they are having serious troubles and closing stores across the country. Lastly, Guelph may have free parking, but there are also experiencing retail vacancies in the downtown. Retail has changed dramatically and forever with the growth in online shopping. Free parking will not change this.

    b) A lot of people (not you) beg for free parking while some complain about lack of available parking. If parking downtown was free during desirable hours, it would never be available. Daniel Shoupe has extensively studied the pricing of parking (his book is called The High Cost of Free Parking) and suggests that pricing parking flexibly, so that it achieves around an 80% occupancy rate (ie. if there are 10 spaces on a street, 2 will be available at any given time). This minimizes people having to drive in circles looking for spaces, while still making pricing attractive enough to fill most of the spaces. Some people will never pay for parking, but if 80% of people are willing to, it optimizes the situation for everyone. San Francisco has a sophisticated system that monitors parking availability in real time and changes the price based on demand. It would not make sense for Kingston to spend the money to do this, but… it exists. Thinking about Shoupe's research, I would suggest that sure, free parking in Kingston's downtown parking lots could make sense, if that's what it takes to get them to 80% capacity on a Saturday during prime shopping hours. If they are empty during prime shopping hours, nobody wins, but is that the case? In the case of on-street parking, given how hard it is to find a parking space on Princess Street on a Saturday, parking is probably UNDER priced at certain times on that street. Also, I have no issue with an hour of free parking during the holiday season, but as a systemic issue I think it is overblown.

    I am a downtown dweller and want to see the continued success of downtown…. I just think parking is a much smaller piece of the puzzle than people make it out to be.

    • I agree with everything you've said. Parking in Kingston's downtown is very cheap and is probably under-priced at certain times. I'm originally from London, Ont. where downtown parking costs rival that of Toronto, and the price here is a true bargain in comparison. (I was in London for Canada Day and I paid $8 to park there for an hour and a half)

  • The amount Kingstonians complain about parking downtown is hilarious. Guys, it's $1 per hour and many side streets are free. Start complaining if it ever gets like downtown Toronto at $8-10+ per hour

  • I'm not sure free parking throughout the holiday season would really help draw more people to stores in downtown Kingston. Free parking is a great perk to offer patrons, but on most days I've walked/driven around lately, many of the lots have been packed to capacity and cars have otherwise been circling the block to find that precious spot nearest their destination. Perhaps what we need are more lots, lots that are dedicated to retail, or lots who offer deeply discounted rates (ie parking validation) to those who show proof of purchase.

  • Some residents with longer memories will recall that Kingston used to have a parking stamp program. If you made a purchase at a downtown retailer, you'd get a stamp for some amount of free parking. Of course this did require a human in the parking lot to check and determine the appropriate parking fee.

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