Travel Options Putting a positive spin on pay parking By Andrew Mitchell People love their cars. They’re fast, go door-to-door, and let you sleep in an extra 15 minutes every morning. They’re your portable stereo system and an oversized backpack. But everybody hates traffic — too many people loving their cars are making your life miserable. Gridlock is supposed to be something that happens in Vancouver and Toronto, not in Whistler, a village of 9,000 that exists by and for the great outdoors experience. Yet every weekend sees another tide of motorists rolling into town, locked bumper to bumper, and parking lots filled to capacity. And every year it’s getting worse. A plan for all seasons More than three years and $400,000 went into the development of the Whistler Comprehensive Transportation Strategy (CTS), a long-term plan for the valley that contains more than 200 different recommendations to relieve traffic congestion through town and along Highway 99. The strategy, which was commissioned by the Transportation Advisory Group (or TAG) in 1997, focused on five key transportation issues: weekend traffic on Highway 99; the increasing numbers of employees forced to live outside of Whistler; the resistance of tourists and second-home owners to public transit; the lack of services and daily needs shopping in Emerald, Alpine Meadows and Creekside; and the failure to make rail service a viable alternative for out-of-town and out-of-country visitors. The list of CTS recommendations includes beefing up the public transit service, expanding the Valley Trail system, and encouraging car and van-pooling programs for locals and the increasing numbers of resort employees who commute daily from Squamish and Pemberton — 20 per cent of the total workforce at last count, and rising. The CTS also recommends installing bike lockers and showers in town for people who cycle and jog to work, and finding new and more efficient ways to get tourists into town by rail and coach, with more frequent airport services and satellite parking facilities outside of town. But for the people who rely on their cars to get to work, the entire scope of the CTS can be summed up with two words: ‘pay’ and ‘parking’. It was a huge issue a year ago when pay parking was first proposed for the day skier lots. It was a core issue in the last municipal election. And now, with the municipality formally adopting the CTS, the pay parking issue is louder than ever. Letters to the editor from irate commuters suggest that pay parking is nothing more than a cash grab by the municipality. Others suggest that it should not apply to Whistlerites, who are too few in number to be the cause of the traffic problem, and who are already burdened with a high cost of living. Still others suggest that pay parking is about getting hard working locals off the road to make room for wealthy tourists. One letter even hinted that local-guest relations could be strained as a result. This level of resistance is to be expected, says Cresswell Walker of Lanarc Consulting, who hosted a March 9 Travel Options workshop for local businesses in the RMOW council chambers. "Getting people to change their travel patterns is never easy. How you get around is a personal thing — any suggestion that there might be an alternative to driving to work every morning will probably be taken personally. "When you institute a program like pay parking, it’s easy for drivers to feel like they’re being singled out and attacked. They don’t see the upside for the environment and for their own health, or the hidden costs associated with parking and operating a SOV (Single Occupant Vehicle). At least not right away." According to Walker, it can cost as much as $10,000 each year to operate a car when you factor in insurance, maintenance and depreciation. There is also growing support for ICBC to switch to a mileage-based insurance system — the more you drive, the more you pay. Although cars are a necessity for most families, these figures may be enough to convince many families to do away with their second cars. A single outdoor parking space costs over $6,000 to create, and hundreds more each year to maintain. A single indoor space can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and thousands more each year to lease and maintain. And, starting in 2001, Revenue Canada will consider free parking as a taxable benefit. Travel Options, a joint project by B.C. Transit and Environment Canada, has drastically reduced the need for parking at some of the largest employers in the Lower Mainland by working with businesses to offer employees a wide range of travel alternatives — easing people out of their cars and into more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation. While the municipality implements the recommendations in the five- and 15-year CTS plans, Travel Options will work with Whistler businesses to find alternatives that everyone can live with. "Last year there were 2.16 million ski visits to Whistler-Blackcomb. That number is projected to increase to 2.5 million annually in the future. Unless people can be convinced to take advantage of some of the alternatives that are available, now, that’s going to cause some huge traffic problems down the road" says Walker. Cars, trucks and buses To paint a picture of how bad traffic in the valley has become, consider that on an average day in 1991, 10,000 vehicles would use Highway 99. By 1998 that number had increased to 15,000. During the summer months, when the Valley Trail is packed with cyclists, joggers and walkers, the daily average is actually higher — close to 18,000 cars. The busiest month is March, when more than half a million cars are expected to make the trip to Whistler. The number of vehicles making the trip to Pemberton every day has increased by 80 per cent since 1997. When just 10,000 lift tickets are purchased on a single day — a low to average Saturday turnout — gridlock through Whistler is guaranteed, says municipal transportation manager Steve Black. On a Sunday evening in the high season, it can take more than 30 minutes to travel the four kilometres from the day skier lots at Blackcomb to Creekside. "Pay parking isn’t about taking locals to the cleaners, it’s about getting people to recognize the alternatives," says Black of the CTS and Travel Options program. "It’s about quality of life. It’s about forests. Preserving our scenic value for locals and visitors, and moving people around without building new roads." A road less traveled Despite the significance of the CTS to Whistler businesses, a 100 per cent occupancy rate in the village meant that the town’s largest employers were too busy to take part in the Travel Options workshop. The only local representatives to attend were from Whiski Jack Resorts, Myrtle Philip Elementary School and the municipality’s planning and engineering departments. Another workshop is being planned for the slow season which Walker hopes will be better attended. Whiski Jack Resorts owns and operates more than 18 buildings in Whistler, all of which require daily cleaning and maintenance. Due to employee shortages and the high seasonal staff turnover, the company has turned to Squamish for a more stable employee base. Maintaining that stability meant buying four vans to shuttle workers to work and home. Another 20 per cent of the Whiski Jack staff regularly commutes from Pemberton, mostly in single occupant vehicles. In the case of Myrtle Philip, First Grade teacher Sarah Leach says things have gotten a lot better in recent years with teachers car pooling, but says more could be done for walkers and cyclists. The biggest problem is not the school’s 40 staff members, but the 500-plus children who are dropped off every morning and picked up every night. "Every day at 3 o’clock, it’s gridlock in the school parking lot," says Leach. "It’s not safe. There is a school bus, but it only makes pickups outside of the neighbourhood, and it has to serve kids aged six to 13. There’s no really safe way to walk here, so most parents, even if they live three blocks away, drive their kids to school. Plus, at the end of the day, the kids have to go to baseball, to soccer, to swimming. Getting a car pool program going for the kids would be extremely challenging." With a sizeable parking area in front of municipal hall and the day skier lots across Blackcomb Way, the municipality’s only concern is that the conditions are almost too good. In order for the CTS to work, however, they have to lead by example. "A lot of our employees are commuting from Pemberton who will take a lot of convincing," says municipal planner Kim Needham. "We also have a lot of people commuting from White Gold, so there’s obviously a lot more we can be doing. We’ll do all we can to get our staff into alternative forms of transit, and for those who still refuse, we will probably eventually have to look into pay parking in the municipal lots." For municipal staff who are required to use their vehicles over the course of a regular workday, fleet vehicles could be made available. Car pooling for Pemberton residents is also a good option, with most of the staff working similar hours. "Whether you have five people in your organization or 500, the basic principles behind Travel Options are the same — finding ways to reduce peoples’ dependency on their cars," says Walker. "How you accomplish that, however, will differ greatly from place to place." Some of the incentives that have been effective in the Lower Mainland are free or subsidized transit passes for employees that are willing to ride the bus; priority parking and even the use of fleet vehicles to those that are willing to carpool; and providing change rooms and showers for workers who run, walk and cycle to work. If these positive incentives are not enough to discourage people from driving their cars to work, employees who choose not participate in car pools may be asked to pay for the parking spot that is subsidized by the company. "There’s no such thing as free parking. Every free parking space has to be built and maintained — it costs somebody, the company or the taxpayers. If you make the process transparent so people know exactly what each space is worth without the subsidy, and charge them something approaching that amount, it’s a powerful incentive to leave the car at home," says Walker. In other words, if a business subsidizes parking for those employees who drive, they should provide a similar subsidy for people who cycle to work. Similarly, if a parking area is subsidized by taxes, then the people who don’t use those spaces should be exempt. Municipal administrator Jim Godfrey has said that the municipality will only implement pay parking when it is satisfied that suitable alternatives are in place and that the transportation needs of Whistler’s workforce are being met. That includes an increased and possibly free transit service for commuters and shower and locker facilities in the village for runners, in-line skaters and cyclists. Once implemented, any revenues generated by pay parking will be set aside to support alternative transportation programs. The biggest challenge, however, is not for the municipality to put the alternatives into place. For the CTS to work, they have to change the way people think. Rather than add to the infrastructure of the town, Black would like to see the infrastructure that exists put to better use. "Speaking for myself, I’m an American and I love my car," says Black. "But the last thing I want to see happen here is a wider highway and new roads all over town. That’s the direction we’re heading in unless we can make (the CTS) work." Ready or not, here it comes The municipality has made it clear that the status quo is not acceptable, and many of the initiatives in the CTS proposal are already underway. New buses have been added, the village shuttle service has been increased, and plans for the new resort development in Creekside and the elementary school in Spring Creek include bike lockers and showers. A new shopping complex is also planned to reduce the need for visitors and residents to head into the village. "In a few years, we’d like to point to Whistler as the model that other cities and towns across Canada could follow," says Walker. "It’s the perfect place for this kind of program. The people are active, young, open to new ideas, and for the most part concerned about their own fitness and the environment. By that measure alone, we’re already way ahead of the rest of the country. "The resistance to pay parking and car pooling is natural, but it goes away over time. Studies show that people actually prefer the alternatives. You can read, or catch up on work on the bus — driving in traffic can take a lot out of you. People who ride their bikes to work are healthier, don’t take sick days, and have a lot more money in their pockets."