A survey for the Edmonton Downtown Business Association found that 60% of workers view the availability of discounted parking as a factor that would increase the likelihood of them choosing to return to work downtown.
But while discounting parking or making it free may seem like an attractive solution to reinvigorate the heart of the city, it's not that simple, explained urban planner Neal LaMontagne.
"There's no such thing as free parking. To discount that parking, somebody is paying for it," he said. If it's not the city, distributing the cost through taxes, then it's the building manager or developer, or the employer, a factor that would likely be considered in setting wages.
Discounted downtown parking, which is expensive to build and maintain, would also provide a "tremendous incentive" to choose driving over other modes of transportation. This is problematic because the core has limited capacity to take an influx of cars. There are also environmental concerns that go beyond having more cars on the roads if the demand for parking increases.
"An underground parkade or a structured parkade is a carbon bomb," LaMontagne told Taproot. "Concrete is carbon-intensive, and it uses a surprising amount of energy within a building.
Instead of providing incentives specifically for parking, LaMontagne said the solution is building up the alternatives to driving, like transit and active transportation, so that they are just as easy and convenient to use to get downtown.
"Discount parking benefits some workers and not others. The best options are where everyone gets $100 a month, you can use it for parking, transit ... an awesome bike. That would be fair," the University of Alberta lecturer explained.
LaMontagne cited Vancouver as an example of a city that has managed to strike a balance on this issue, doubling its downtown population but decreasing the number of cars going in and out of its core.
"There's a lot of options (there) so you don't have to drive into downtown or even own a car. And they're taking down parkades ... because the land is worth too much," he added. "A lot of parking lots doesn't make for a good downtown."
The strength of a city's core should rest in its vitality, activity, and economic intensity, not cheap parking, posited LaMontagne.
Those are factors that respondents to the survey also indicated were important, with more than half saying they'd like to see improved proximity to parks and green spaces. On top of that, 63% said they'd like to see outdoor gathering spaces, and 50% want to see restaurant lunch specials and late afternoon or early evening gatherings.
As the association prepares to welcome workers back downtown, with 58% of employees planning to return by July and 17% returning between August and December, executive director Puneeta McBryan is hoping that once they return, they'll be there long-term.
"As our daytime population comes back, we want to ensure that it's a positive and exciting experience for all. We are so looking forward to reintroducing thousands of Edmontonians to the unique, vibrant Downtown culture, small businesses, and community that can't be experienced anywhere else in Edmonton," McBryan said in a news release about the survey.
The EDBA is also planning for a 300% increase in the association's street cleaning budget, as well as various downtown cultural events and activations beginning in May.
The survey of over 600 downtown workers was conducted between Jan. 31 and Feb. 11. Respondents were from a mix of public, private, and post-secondary organizations.