Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Zen and the politics of parking in Pittsburgh

Attitudes toward parking are like a community Rorschach test don't you think? The post-feline topic of the week downtown is not anything as monumental as the city debt, but something with several fewer zeros: how to close a gap in the budget for the city's permit parking program.

Part of me wonders why parking is such a controversial topic in town, but I have seen first hand how emotional people get over the whole permit-parking program. For those who have no idea what I am talking about, certain city neighborhoods have voluntarily made themselves permit parking zones. Once designated residents need to pay $20 they get a permit to park on the street, otherwise you get ticketed. It's all a means to beat back the horde of commuters into the city each day who otherwise try to take up all the parking spaces on the street. It is kind of a microcosm of the whole regionalism issue in itself when you think about it.

Seems like a minor city program right? I am pretty sure that if you were to do a poll of city residents, parking issues would rank right up there as one of the top policy issues they care about, no matter what else is in the news: debt, deficit, fires and violence.. it does not matter. Parking in front of your home is something close to an inalienable right for many. The fact that people feel they can drive in from (fill in suburb of choice, I don't want to get anyone mad) and take their spot drives many long-time residents into apoplexy. For others the fact that they have to pay $20 to secure the right to park in front of their house is equally vexing.

This isn't important at all, just some very idle musings. I have probably made it apparent that I was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but I lived in some other places. I actually lived in New York City for 3 years. Sometime around 20 years ago, one of the news shows on TV, 20/20 or Dateline or something like that had just a single segment on parking in New York City. Owning a car in Manhattan is pretty painful. I of course am (or at least was) sane and never dreamed of having a car while living in Manhattan, but one of my roommates actually had a car so I got to watch his machinations. Things like finding a parking space are very acquired skills in NYC that go beyond anything we need to deal with here. And if you pay for parking you are going to pay rates that make even tax-inflated Pittsburgh prices look like pocket change. If you had a car and live in Manhattan you had all sorts of unique problems. Take street cleaning. Every so often the scheduled sweeper would come down your street. What do we do here? Move our cars to the other side of the street. Not exactly an option in New York City where there are no spaces on the other side of the street. So what happens. People moved their cars.. and they do move them to the side of the street. You wind up with whole neighborhoods double parked all day long. So if you think you need your car the next day, you are either going to be boxed in, or you need to go and move your car so that it is double parked street-side to. Whole neighborhoods become semi-parking lots for most of a day. I am told they have been cracking down on the whole practice by ticketing where once they turned a blind eye. Nonetheless, I suspect most Pittsburghers would still find the parking situation in NYC as unfamiliar as living on Mars. I read that just a parking space in Manhattan can cost over $200,000. Just coming in for a day, a daily rate in midtown can easily top $50.. and forget any talk of congestion or the tolls just to take a bridge or tunnel into Manhattan.

But back to this TV show. The double parking issue was included in the segment about NYC, as with all other parking travails and parking costs. I swear that for years, and I do mean years, whenever I was home visiting... if I ran into someone I had not seen in some time and the topic of "where are you now" came up.... at the first mention of New York City everyone's questions revolved around whether all they saw on this one TV segment on parking was true. It was like everyone in Pittsburgh saw it and made it their single reference point for living in New York City. Forget any question about Broadway, restaurants, the statue of liberty or whatever... was parking really as bad as they say?

In the end it says more about us than about NYC of course. and the poor politicians who have any say on parking issues have a tough task. For those few out of town readers I have, this may be just a tad hard to comprehend: the cost is $1 for an annual visitors pass you can use for guests to park on your street. That is $1 for the whole year... really.(what does a candy bar cost these days?) The $20 fee that sparks such ire is for an annual sticker to put on your car. It is one of those Pittsburgh pathologies that we have a fee so low that it must more to collect than the fee itself brings in. The holographically encoded passes must cost more than a dollar each to print, let alone to put into the mail and frank. Yet pity the poor council person that proposes raising the fee to $2 (I am sure some local paper will have a headline about the 'doubling' of the fee/tax). Barring indictment, it's the simplest route to getting yourself unelected.

What does it all mean? Who knows, but suffice it to say that even to this day I would never dream of touching one of those street chairs, fewer and fewer they are every year.


Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I grew up in a housing development in Westmoreland County, so when I first moved to Pittsburgh my mother always encouraged me to find an apartment with off-street parking. Who cares, I told her.

Of course, in Mt. Lebanon, an off-street parking spot is valuable because in much of the municipality, overnight street parking is not allowed, except during the weekends. You could call the police and request that a visitor be allowed to park overnight. I know someone who parked in a church lot overnight, then had to get up every morning to move his car to the street. My wife and I were given one large spot by our landlord in the lot next to our building, so we parked each other in.

I don't have a point, mind you. Just making chit-chat.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger Schultz said...

I'm all for congestion pricing and raising parking prices - as long as there is a viable option for mass transit that is. In Chicago, New York, and DC one does not need to drive, and why would anyone want to drive?

I long for the day when I can take the T from the South Hills to Oakland and the eastern neighborhoods. Right now I would have to take the T to Steel Plaza and then hop on a Bus on Forbes - that is just too time consuming. Until that day I'm stuck driving most of the I enter the city which is a waste of gas and tires on my car since the roads are in such pitiful shape.

Of course, their solution is the patch up the existing roads, build new roads, and then build new parking garages instead of trying come up with alternatives that would change our behavior while costing about the same in the long run while putting less of a strain on the environment and quality of life.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 12:20:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

chit chat is fine... probably more coherent than my stream of conscious ramblings anyway...

but this has got me thinking. Whether or not one has off-street parking may be one of the great divides within the city. I jest... sort of.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 1:14:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Wasn't there some kind of ordinance passed a few years ago giving South Siders permission to build carports on their property?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 3:30:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

I think so.. I forget the details but I don't think it's limited to any one neighborhood.. and if memory serves you need some approval from your neighbors. Any city code or zoning gurus out there?

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 3:53:00 PM  
Blogger EdHeath said...

The PG story on parking implied that the $1 additional pass was only good for five days. Still a pretty good deal, but not an astounding one (well, maybe compared to $200,000). I’m kind of surprised the program loses money. A half million dollars to run the program, mainly being charged by the parking authority for enforcement? Sounds like the Mayor’s bodyguards are on the job. I have always thought the program was a little mean, maybe more than a little mean. Because of where I live and work (near Oakland), I see the program as targeting streets near hospitals and Universities. Issuing tickets to relatives of sick people, commuting students and not terribly well paid University and hospital staff always struck me as petty. That there are expensive parking lots near by willing to step into the breach is cold comfort. A backup of 26 neighborhoods waiting to zone the rest of us out? That, to me, is seriously scary.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 9:52:00 PM  
Blogger C. Briem said...

the program isnt really targeted at all in a sense... neighborhoods have to ask to become permit areas and the boundaries are set by the limits of that request. but it is true that the neighborhoods nearest large institutions are the ones who wanted it the most which makes sense in that those were the generators of the commuting workers who come in and scarf up parking. To be fair, in a lot of neighborhoods, the number of commuting workers looking for parking would swamp a lot of close-in neighborhoods if parking was really free. Of course zoning could require more parking spaces be built but that is often much harder than it sounds and nearly impossible after the fact.

program revenues get eaten up by parking court administration as best I can tell which makes the program a money loser. and pathologically a money loser on an operating basis, so if there were more permit areas the program would lose more money.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007 10:40:00 PM  
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