The parking meter idiocy

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City Planning. (Julian Archer/Architectural Record, 1943)

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza appears determined to serve a single term. How do I know? Just look! He is trying to offend every constituency he can by installing parking meters where they shop. Several neighborhoods on the East Side have successfully resisted – Hope Village north of Rochambeau is one example – at least for now. Thayer Street is the latest victim.

Its merchants have mounted a revolt against the parking meters, advertising a petition against them on the marquee of the Avon Theater. Merchant Kenneth Dulgarian, who owns the Avon with his brother Richard, has written a rousing denunciation of the policy for the Providence Journal’s shrinking oped section: “Parking meters spread economic plague“:

Parking meters have become an economic plague in Providence. Their continuing proliferation is enraging customers, destroying businesses, and undermining City Hall’s repeated boast that the capital city is “open for business.”

He goes on to question the idea that parking meters will help solve the city’s budget deficit. The meters are costly to install, break down frequently, are thus costly to maintain, and require more employees to fix them and keep them operational. Now that I no longer live downtown I drive a lot (I used to take the bus to work, but the bus service is not reliable enough to use it for chores or occasional meetings) and am often able to find a spot whose meter is broken or still has time left on it. Perhaps it is just broken, and that was the time left stuck on it – free parking for those lucky enough to find it.

Dulgarian argues that the costs of the meter system combined with the reduction in taxes from shops hurting or already closed probably comes close to drowning out any revenue the meters bring in.

The meter policy reminds me of the state’s bus policy. Instead of improving bus service, the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has historically used the strategy of raising fares and cutting routes to make up annual budget deficits. So people increasingly find the bus inconvenient for a wider and wider range of uses, causing RIPTA to raise rates higher and reduce more services – so that people increasingly perceive the bus as a less reliable mode of transit that still costs ever more to use.

As they say, this is no way to run an airline.

The municipal adoration of parking meters reveals a similarly shortsighted management of the public weal. Recently it was reported that more and more managers in City Hall are costing the taxpayers more and more money. The city seems capable of thinking up more and more things to do, some of them necessary to fix previously enacted things that don’t work, and many entirely unnecessary except to stroke this or that narrow constituency.

This is a problem with municipal government not just in Providence but across the state and the nation. It is not just taxpayers who suffer higher taxes for fewer and less efficient basic services. The same strategy of leadership affects private business and nonprofit institutions as well. Just go to the Brown University job site and look at the titles of the jobs available.

Parking meters are just one of many camels’ noses under the tent. Pretty soon, the city will want to meter not just local shopping districts but every parking space along every residential street curb. Don’t look now but this has already been done! Instead of simply reversing its decades’ long ban on residential overnight parking, the city recently started forcing homeowners to buy permits if they want to park overnight in front of their own houses.

This set of interlocking city problems, addressed with an abiding stupidity, reminds me of the movie Idiocracy, in which the Pentagon sends a couple operatives into the future. They find that DNA of Americans has become stupider and stupider, to the point where citizens, themselves all stupid, have internalized the inconveniences of a society run according to a regime of official stupdity. Among the many hilarious touches by the director of scenery, buildings often collapse and those still standing are held up by duck tape. Sometimes I think we are already there.

This post goes under my Urban Planning category but also Architecture, because in the past half century we have massively traded down, accepting ugly buildings designed to need replacement in three or four decades for buildings of a certain dependable degree of beauty that are designed to last a century or more. A rationale for this was officially adopted decades ago, even though it is idiotic, barely even plausible under the slightest examination. We see this in the buildings proposed for the Route 195 corridor – not only ugly (see illustration below) but increasingly financed by taxpayers.

Maybe Thayer Street’s revolt against parking meters will be a revolution’s shot heard round the world.

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Proposed Wexford Science & Technology project, Route 195 corridor. (gcpvd.org)

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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6 Responses to The parking meter idiocy

  1. Pingback: Lovely Rita, meter maid! | Architecture Here and There

  2. Where there’s some legitimacy (some. . . ) to Dulgarian’s complaints is the fact that Shoup calls for neighborhood parking to be metered, and for the money from the meters to be allocated to the local businesses or residents nearby. I’ve advocated for this pretty consistently, and I agree that the mayor should change his policy on that. What irritates me as someone who has walked, biked, or taken the bus to the Avon Theater many times is the apparent disregard for non-driving customers, and for the climate crisis we’re in. I think Dulgarian’s campaign is extremely selfish.

    Dulgarian has advocated for more parking– through surface lots– in the neighborhood by tearing down homes. When he did that, he argued that there wasn’t enough parking around, and that more was needed. At the same time, he was carrying out his advocacy against parking meters, shouting from his marquee that all the parking is empty. Seems a ridiculous contradiction.

    See here: http://www.rifuture.org/dont-eliminate-parking-meters-fix-them.html

    And meanwhile, the Dulgarians are posting flyers around the neighborhood for rented parking. So apparently the spots right in the heart of the shopping district are free, but the ones on the edges at some property they own are not.

    And to your point about transit, we need better transit. But there’s a strong relationship between parking policy and transit policy. We can’t expect the city to develop more non-car options if we can’t get our parking policy right.

    I’ll tell you, I won’t go to Avon Theater until he stops this dumb anti-meter campaign.

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  3. barry says:

    Both views have a point, the meters may indeed hurt the businesses where they are put in (but help other businesses?) but making parking “free” does shift costs to others including those who use the bus who are double losers as fewer will take the bus if it has to compete with free parking, ultimately resulting in less bus service. But unless there are statewide meters, Providence cannot ignore the reality that those insisting on “free” parking can go out of town.
    For the most part RIPTA hasn’t actually cut service in recent years (some reallocation to better meet demand) but it does suffer from having to compete with all the “free” parking provided by URI and state colleges, state government (which even paved some of the state House lawn to accommodate even more “free” parking) and others.
    There is a spreading sickness of wanting things for “free” (that is, someone else pay) that applies to those who expect “free” parking, those who want to use new bridges without tolls, those who run heavy trucks across the state and don’t want to pay the associated infrastructure costs, those with solar installations but who don’t want to pay for the grid they still need, the 30% of RIPTA’s riders who want to continue to ride “free” even during commuter hours, resisting the generous 75% discount they are being offered, non-profits that need city services but want someone else to pay, and corporations that don;t want to pay taxes and demand “tax treaties” (aka giveaways) to move to or stay in the state. All this erodes the civic culture and infrastructure, and makes suckers of those not in on the freebies.

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  4. Have you read Donald Shoup, _The High Cost of Free Parking_?

    You don’t seem to understand the economic issue involved in pricing parking. It is a fact of life that, if you give away or undercharge for a scarce resource, such as urban parking, you will create a shortage. The Soviet economy did this for a wide range of goods and services, which is why people had to stand on long lines to buy food. In the United States, we just do it for automobiles.

    Cities across the country are following Shoup’s advice and applying market principles to pricing parking.

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  5. Parking spaces cost money. Saying that parking spaces should be free means that you propose the cost be shifted to someone besides the user. “Free” parking on Thayer and Wickenden Streets is paid for by the taxpayers of Providence. Should someone living in Elmhurst pay for your convenience? Should I pay for the people who park on my street who go to work at Brown every day? Should Charles Meyers for free street parking?

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    • I guess my reply, Peter, would be that we have already paid for the parking spaces via taxes; often the same is true for the other things mentioned by Charles and Barry. What the municipalities are doing is to add costly bureaucratic structure on top of the physical structure – such as streets and sidewalks, which, maintenance aside, largely are indeed free once they’ve been built.

      The added bureaucratic structure is what sends taxes higher and higher. In regard to parking, regulations should bar people from parking all day in one spot in a commercial district – just to name one type of infraction – and the city should assess fines through tickets. Law abiders should not be punished for the sins of law breakers.

      A shortage of parking created by the business generated by free parking is a problem every city should want. Buses should be free, and are in some places, mostly in robust downtowns. In a state like Rhode Island, RIPTA should be free and then you would see how much it is used.

      There are categories of goods and services that respond well to market forces and those that do not. There is always a balance to be sought on this whole range of issues, but Providence and other places (often places that are not as robust as they could be) seem to operate as if raising prices and cutting services is the way to achieve budgetary nirvana. Think again, guys!

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