Friday, December 21, 2012

Who owns the street outside your house, and who gets to park there?

Parking. It's a dilemma for cities, towns and even hamlets. The more you make accommodations for drivers (that is, most adults) who need to park vehicles, the uglier and less functional you are likely to make your city.

Yes, you can find exceptions: Parking decks lined on all sides with stores or condos or offices. (Want examples? Visit the Gateway area of uptown along West Trade Street across from Johnson & Wales University.) But those projects are notably more expensive than your basic surface lot that slicks a coat of asphalt over the dirt. That's one reason a large chunk of uptown Charlotte, beyond the main corridors, is a dead-zone of surface parking lots. Fully one fifth of First Ward is covered with surface parking lots. In a city with some 75,000 uptown workers and limited transit service, people are going to drive. Just saying, "Don't drive," is not a helpful option.

On-street parking in College Downs will be restricted. Photo: Corbin Peters
As many have noted – with UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup maybe the most prominent among them – free parking isn't. Wal-Mart may be surrounded by acres of "free" asphalt for you and your Camry, but Wal-Mart has to pay for that land and for the paving and repaving. The parking cost is built in to the price of what you buy there. Even if you don't shop at Wal-Mart, you pay for their lot, because as a taxpayers you foot the bill for storm drainage systems and anti-pollution measures to accommodate the torrents of rainwater that run off, most of it carrying pollutants.
So on-street parking emerges as one of the most cost-effective and sensible ways to provide parking. The streets are already built and paved, and publicly owned by all of us, and publicly available to all of us. But ...

Ever had some dingbat park at the end of your driveway so you can't back out? Ever had to weave through landscapers' trucks and massive SUVs parked on both sides of a narrow neighborhood street? On-street parking isn't always comfortable for everyone.

Now, imagine you live in an established neighborhood right across a busy street from a 26,000-student state university, which charges its students and employees for parking – as it should because, after all, it costs N.C. taxpayers to build those lots and decks. The non-student residents in the College Downs neighborhood, understandably, got fed up with students and others parking all up and down their streets. They asked the city to ban on-street parking. So the city did.

The problem of managing parking raises plenty of questions, and not just near UNC Charlotte. Few of the answers are easy. writer Corbin Peters examined the College Downs situation in "As the city urbanizes, who gets to use the streets?"

Now imagine, for a minute, what would happen in Manhattan if a group of residents asked the city to ban on-street parking on a street because they didn't like it. They'd be laughed off the island. But even in other large, parking-stressed cities, odd notions of ownership will arise around streets and parking places. In Boston, some people who have to park on the street will shovel out their cars in winter, and before they drive away, "reserve" their spot with a chair or other place-holder until they return. After all, shoveling out is hard work and why should somebody else benefit from your work?
 But Charlotte is not Manhattan, or Boston. Here, we mostly assume we'll be able to park easily and for "free." At least, for now we do. In 20 years, I predict, those assumptions will have changed.

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