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Evelyn Reid

Free Downtown Parking for the Holidays ... In Theory

By December 3, 2008

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The city of Montreal is attempting to woo vehicle owners away from suburban shopping by offering free downtown parking this holiday season, starting at 9 a.m. December 20 to 5 p.m. December 28.

Thus, Ville-Marie Borough parking meters will not accept coins nor credit cards, a sort of indirect subsidy to downtown merchants and a supposed financial relief to shoppers that has raised questions, including from Sammy Forcillo, the city's executive committee vice-chairman for finance, infrastructure, roads and water, who is concerned drivers will simply occupy a spot all day, lowering regular turnover and effectively clogging up all the free spots, as he claims previous studies conducted on the matter suggest is the case.

At the same time, could downtown paid parking lots actually benefit from the free parking initiative? What if a higher influx of car-owning shoppers, seduced by the said freebie, end up clogging the already busy downtown core streets with higher traffic on the lookout for these fabled street spots, only to give in to paid parking lots out of sheer frustration? And what if this increased traffic puts off car-toting shoppers even more from venturing downtown in the future?

Then there's the option of offering free public transit on those days but apparently that's too expensive and "complicated."

So what about, as a clever car-driving suburban friend of mine proposed, making Ste. Catherine car-free those days instead? Turn the artery into a mini-winter shopping wonderland: throw in a few fire breathers, invite this town's talented buskers, recent circus school graduates, emerging entertainers, you name it, and let them do their thing, potentially making the chaos of Christmas shopping a little more fun, a festival of sorts?

The latter could not only serve as an encouraging attractor to shopping in the downtown core (and getting there by public transit), it also validates the existence of the car-less among us (about one third of Montreal households do not own a car) and it's more inclusive of all income earners, high and low, which seems closer to the spirit of Christmas than simply giving car owners an illusory break from parking fees.

But then again, the initial question the city tried to answer with free parking remains. Would a car-free festive Ste. Catherine Street attract shoppers away from suburban destinations in favor of the core?

What do you think? Is free parking the way to go? What would you do to attract shoppers to check out downtown Montreal stores?

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DECEMBER 6 UPDATE: FREE PARKING IS CANCELLED BUT DRIVERS WILL BENEFIT FROM A LOW METER PRICE OF $0.25 PER HOUR ON CERTAIN DOWNTOWN STREETS. CHECK OUT THE DETAILS HERE.

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DECEMBER 20 UPDATE: THERE WILL BE NO FREE OR CHEAP PARKING ANYWHERE IN DOWNTOWN MONTREAL FOR THE HOLIDAY SEASON. READ THE DETAILS HERE (IN FRENCH).

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