Parking Permits, Grocery Trips, and The Dream of a Car-Free City

So how, exactly, are we going to pay for the operational costs of our new streetcar system? That’s the question of the age in Cincinnati, isn’t it?

A few solutions seem obvious to me: rider fares, sponsorships, and minimal tax increases in the immediate area (known as a TIF district). Beyond that, I’m not city-savvy enough to even pretend to have any easy solutions.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Cranley made a seemingly off-the-cuff suggestion that the City simply charge downtown and OTR residents a couple hundred bucks a year for a residential parking permit and that those funds be used to operate the streetcar. I’m not going to waste time making judgements about the Mayor’s intent in proposing this solution. Instead, let me offer my perspective on the idea itself.

First, OTR absolutely needs a residential parking program.
This has been a topic of conversation for a few years now as the development in the neighborhood brings more and more non-residents into the neighborhood and as more employees need a place to park during open hours. On a personal note, the difference between the ease of parking four years ago and the situation today is nearly night and day. And with a 600-seat music venue opening around the corner, I’m preparing for a rude awakening for all of us in a few weeks.

The folks at UrbanCincy.com think that the Mayor’s idea is reasonable. (You can read the editorial here.) The basic gist of the editorial is that driving is already subsidized in many ways and that it’s reasonable to begin asking residents to actually bear the cost of their driving habits. They compare the average monthly parking rates in the area to market rates in other cities. And they suggest that this could be implemented city-wide with the funds being used for various developments in other areas.

I’m actually sympathetic to the idea of charging residents for parking permits and, in some ways, I agree with the UrbanCincy.com editorial. But I think there are a few errors here.

We know that the $300 suggested permit fee is hundreds of dollars above the yearly fees in other cities. Some might suggest that the lower fees of other cities are too low and that they don’t even come close to matching the current subsidies. But I argue that, even if that is the case, it’s still unreasonable. It’s unreasonable because it’s asking residents of our city, which is only now catching up to comparably-sized cities to pay exponentially more for the benefits found in cities that are steps ahead of us. It’s essentially asking us to pay 22nd Century prices for 20th Century amenities.

You might say, like UrbanCincy.com, that the $25 a month that it would cost is still significantly lower than the average monthly parking rate (on lots and in garages) in the neighborhood, which is about $89. Well, yes, you’re right. But that $40-110 a month pays for security and availability. My $300 would not guarantee me a spot anywhere near my home. It would simply guarantee a spot somewhere on a “resident-only parking” street in the neighborhood which, with increased meter hours on every other street, might not mean much at all. Heck, we can’t even find the means to enforce street parking restrictions and vehicle-related crimes as they stand now. Do you really think the city is going to work hard to protect my $300 parking space?

Now, if we’re actually suggesting that every resident in every neighborhood with publicly-funded transit (including road improvements) is going to be asked to pay the same fees, I would get behind that. But good luck getting city-wide resident support for a $300 yearly fee to park on city streets. A more reasonable fee that is comparable to other forward-thinking cities seems like a better idea.

Second, the Mayor was quick to suggest that low-income residents of OTR would not have to pay these fees. So, a couple living in a $300,000 condo (that did not already have a safe, convenient parking garage that they are willing to pay for) would pay the $300 fee and then any random resident who can prove they get mail at an OTR address but don’t make enough money to pay the $300 can park for free? Let’s assume that by “low-income,” we mean the standard measurements used for subsidized housing in OTR, which is essentially, those making less than $35,000 a year. (I talked about this more in a recent post about “affordable housing.”) But what about those making between $35,000-120,000 a year? You know, the working- and middle-class residents? There is a reason many of us don’t pay for monthly parking spaces: we can’t afford them.

I’m not one to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, so I’m not willing to write off the whole idea. I do think the City should institute an official residential parking permit program. But I think the rate must be reasonable, attainable for middle-class residents, and must be instituted in all areas of the city where the City is paying for transportation improvements.

Lastly, let me speak from a mother’s perspective.

As much as I’m sympathetic to the young urbanist agenda for car-free, rail-strong cities, it’s important to remind everyone that a strong urban core must make room for families, not just empty-nesters, yuppies, and the childless creative class. Joel Kotkin who is always good at upsetting people with his views on urbanism, said it perfectly in a City Journal article a few years ago:

“In California, particularly, state and local officials push policies that favor the development of apartments over single-family houses and town houses. But by trying to cram people into higher-density space, planners inadvertently help push up prices for the existing stock of family-friendly homes. Such policies have already been practiced for decades in the United Kingdom, making even provincial cities increasingly unaffordable, as British social commentator James Heartfield notes. London itself is among the least affordable cities in the world. Even middle-class residents have been known to live in garages, converted bathrooms, and garden sheds.

“…Ultimately, everything boils down to what purpose a city should serve. History has shown that rapid declines in childbearing—whether in ancient Rome, seventeenth-century Venice, or modern-day Tokyo—correlate with an erosion of cultural and economic vitality. The post-family city appeals only to a certain segment of the population, one that, however affluent, cannot ensure a prosperous future on its own. If cities want to nurture the next generation of urbanites and keep more of their younger adults, they will have to find a way to welcome back families, which have sustained cities for millennia and given the urban experience much of its humanity.” – “The Childless City”

But, why does this matter? What is the correlation between parking and families?
Well, let me speak from personal experience: the logistics of raising a family in the city can be really hard. Particularly when you have to consider transporting multiple bodies and nightmares like unloading a trunk full of groceries with three kids in the car and no available parking spaces.

My children and I have definitely adapted to a semi-pedestrian lifestyle, can go days without hopping in a car, and are accustomed to walking a few blocks from car to front door. And my kids know no different. So, many of my childless friends think I should just get rid of the car and save myself the $300 and the bother of finding a convenient place to park.

It’s that simple, right?
Oh gosh, I wish it was.

Maybe for a family with 2 or fewer children; maybe with no family to visit in the suburbs and across the country; maybe without my husband’s side-work that requires complete mobility; maybe in a city that isn’t surrounded by hills that only an olympic cyclist could pedal with kids in tow; maybe in a city where ZipCar had vehicles that would actually fit a family (or even mentioned kids or carseats on their website!!); maybe in a city where any of my closest friends were actually willing/able to live in the urban core where we could walk to see them rather than drive.

But I digress.

Look, I’m not complaining. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to stick it out here, kids and all. So, let me clarify: I don’t think that true, urban living is ever truly “convenient” in the modern sense. And I believe, completely, that anyone can adapt to a pedestrian lifestyle which becomes more convenient in many other ways. But I think making car ownership an impossibility for so many of us, based on its cost alone, means cutting off a demographic that is too valuable to the city to lose.

There are some magical places in the world where a large family can live in the urban core without a vehicle–and without a $250,000 income. (Seriously, you’ve heard of this woman, right?) But we don’t live in one of those places. We live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is still struggling to rally residents around the thought of a simple commuter lightrail line. Heck! It’s taken years to coerce one of the country’s largest grocers to open a legitimate urban-platform store in its home city!

Our urban ininfrastructure is far, far behind, my friends.
We may get there some day and I hope I’m here when we do. But we are not there yet.
And if we think that charging a few thousand residents $300 a year to park on city streets is going to usher our city into the next era of urban renaissance, we are wrong.

I think our attention needs to focus more holistically on creating a livable city for everyone–all incomes, all demographics–where people don’t just come for $10 hotdogs, but can actually live and shop and raise kids and open businesses in the same place where the Symphony rehearses and the Reds play.

This is the kind of city I want to build.
Not one for the elite; one for my children.
And a $300 parking permit might not seem like a huge deal in the entirety of the transit issue, but it’s just one more example of how the urban middle-class of our city may be destined for extinction.

And, if there is no place for the urban middle-class in Cincinnati, then maybe I’m in the wrong city.

 

 

A Quick Note about Subsidization

Subsidization.

Depending on which side you’re on, the word elicits either hope or disgust.

I’m sympathetic to both sides.

I have worked in the nonprofit industry for the past 9 years and know firsthand how stark the difference is between private donations and corporate funds. In our world, the difference between small award money and large government grants can easily mean the decision of sticking to volunteer help vs hiring paid staff, seeking free tagline promotion vs paying for billboards, or repairing outdated computers vs upgrading to new office supplies. Subsidies make the impossible possible. And, when used strategically, they provide better services and improved efficiency which, in turn, actually paves the way toward independence and increased capacity.

Conversely, I understand that the goal of every entity is to be independent of government handouts and subsidies, free from corporate entanglements, and at liberty to make decisions without needing to answer to those who are actually footing the bill. And I do believe that privatized systems usually do work better and more efficiently (which is why I am not a Socialist).

When it comes to an issue like the Cincinnati streetcar–whose controversy has made national newsthe opposition has a legitimate point: Why should residents in the outskirts of the city subsidize a project that (directly) benefits only a small minority of the population? Like I said, it’s a legitimate question.

So it needs to be addressed.

One of the gentlemen who commented on my blog post about the streetcar debate echoed many other Cincinnatians when he wrote (mocking me by his quote):

So… the “strong urban core” requires looting people from the suburbs. Who is depending on whom?

I am sympathetic to his point and I’ve heard it said a million times in a million different ways. But I believe it speaks out of a misunderstanding of how vibrant cities actually work.

A metropolitan area is a complex machine. If a city were the human body (the most complex machine in existence), the city’s infrastructure would be the veins and arteries and the people would be the blood vessels. The urban core is the heart of the city. The heart pumps the blood that pushes out into the rest of the body to move the limbs and keep the brain functioning at full capacity. If the heart dies, the rest of the body dies.

What does this have to do with subsidies?

No part of the body–or the city–functions alone. We all want to pretend that we exist independently of each other, but we don’t.

Too many of us have a false sense of autonomy.  It’s as if we believe that we are “self-made men” who have not (directly or indirectly) benefited from the financial investments of others. And maybe it’s true. Maybe we never accepted $20 from our parents for gas money. Maybe we didn’t attend a public university with the help of some sort of financial aid. Maybe we purchased our home with cash and have never borrowed from a bank. Maybe our neighborhood association paid for the street lights on our street. Maybe we wrote a personal check to off-set the cost of the mega-grocery store relocating to the shopping complex down the road. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Cincinnati Public Schools or use city trash services. Maybe we live off the grid and use electricity from solar panels (that were made by a company that was not partially-funded by a government grant).

Maybe someone somewhere lives in a place that is growing and thriving and a safe, wonderful place to live, but where everyone pays for only their own stuff and no one ever has to share anything.

But I don’t live in that place.
I live in a city.
And, in a city, we share.

When we choose to live in a city–and I don’t mean an “urban area,” I mean an incorporated City in the proper sense–we make a promise to cooperate with our neighbors to make the city a better place for all of us. When we have an opportunity to embark on a new project that could benefit us all, we do it together or we don’t do it at all. And, if we can’t agree how to do it or how to pay for it, we put it up for a vote and the majority rules.

I understand that some people are skeptical of the streetcar project. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a bit skeptical myself. But, in this instance, the majority has already ruled.

Twice.

When people on the edges of Cincinnati say that they “shouldn’t have to pay” for development in our urban core, they are functioning with that false sense of autonomy. They act like the quality of life or culture, energy, or economic vitality of the urban core means nothing for the quality of their own lives. It’s as if they’ve never watched a Bengal’s game. Or had a job with one of downtown’s Fortune 500 companies. Or their kids didn’t beg to go see the fireworks on the riverfront or the Christmas tree on the square or the exhibit at the museum. Or they didn’t buy their wives or husbands or grandparents or secretary a ticket to the Symphony or the ballet.

Amenities and cultural institutions are what make Cincinnati a vibrant and desirable place to live, work, and play. A healthy urban core gives businesses and institutions a safe and comfortable place to exist and a safe and comfortable place for you to bring your out-of-town guests (and take your urban-chic family photos, which are all the rage among suburban folk). Without a healthy urban core, we decentralize these amenities to a point where we lose the very thing that draws people here in the first place–our shared identity.

We, collectively, choose to subsidize the infrastructure of our city because it’s what keeps the people–the blood, if you will–moving in and out and around the entire machine. Without a healthy urban core and an efficient and updated infrastructure, we simply cannot make the city the machine it needs to be to sustain the rest of the parts.

Said another way:
We can live without an arm, but not without a heart.

Or:
If you want a healthy city, you need to pump some love into its heart.