A proposal by the City to put parking meters in downtown Salem (Oregon) has some progressives wondering what side of the issue they should be on. Not surprising.
Progressives/liberals, of which I am proudly one, often aren't of the same mind. Anyone who has been part of a progressive group knows that leading them is a lot more like herding cats, than sheep. Liberals are independent-minded and like to go in all kinds of different directions.
Which is a great thing. Better decisions happen when diverse views are put out, heard, considered, and argued before a preferred direction is chosen.
Recently I got an email from a progressive who said, "I'm a bit confused at the possibility of meters being taken on as a negative by many progressives." He was torn.
On the one hand, he liked the efforts of Stop Parking Meters Downtown.
The group has gotten over 8,000 signatures on a petition that would ban downtown parking meters, charge $1 to park in downtown's parking garages, and limit annual increases in the parking tax charged to downtown businesses.
My progressive correspondent liked challenging the City, since public input on the City's parking meter proposal was extremely limited. However, he said that he bikes to work year round and doesn't want to support further "auto-centric" policies downtown.
He ended his message with a wonderfully progressive sentiment:
Those are my thoughts, Brian. I would be curious to know what your thoughts are about this issue and how you might challenge some of my views. I have an open mind.
Hey, me too.
If I heard some good arguments for installing parking meters in downtown Salem, I might change my progressive mind also. But I haven't. Here's a synopsis of why I oppose meters. For more detail, read my previous posts on this subject here, here, here, here, and here.
(1) Parking meters should be a traffic management tool, not a funding source. When an area is burdened with too many visitors in cars competing for too few parking spaces, meters can make sense. Modern electronic meters can charge different amounts at varying times of day. Thus parking meters can be used akin to "congestion pricing" on toll roads/bridges.
But the City of Salem is solely focused on using meters to raise money to pay for maintenance of downtown parking garages. So parking meters in downtown Salem would be used to keep free parking for cars in the garages by making drivers who use onstreet parking pay. Makes no sense. Which relates to...
(2) Big downtown retailers shouldn't get a big parking tax break while small businesses get a big parking tax increase. Recently the City more than doubled the annual minimum parking tax paid by small businesses, from $197 to $400. This was a blatant, and unsuccessful, attempt to coerce these businesses into supporting parking meters, since if meters are installed, the parking tax would go away.
On all businesses. Including large retailers like Penneys, which now pays a parking tax of over $40,000 a year.
The City's parking meter proposal would have Penney's pay zero, while also preserving free parking in the garages -- which primarily serve visitors to the large retailers like Penneys. Meanwhile, visitors to small businesses like restaurants, coffee shops, and the like would have to plug a meter to buy a $2 muffin or cup of coffee. For this and other reasons, the City projects a 20% decline in downtown visits by car. Really bad for the vitality of downtown, since suburban malls like Keizer Station have free parking.
(3) The City of Salem can't be trusted to reasonably discuss parking meters. This is obvious. Opponents of downtown parking meters have tried to engage City elected officials and staff. But the current leadership of the City is dedicated to lecturing, not listening; to making decisions first, and conjuring up reasons later; to shutting down public participation, not being the "public servants" they should be.
So the initiative to ban downtown parking meters was a necessary response to an unresponsive City of Salem.
Small downtown businesses recognize that at some time in the future, given certain conditions, with the right control over meter revenues, parking meters could be an element in policies to energize, enliven, and "green up" downtown. This is what the Streetscape plan is all about: making downtown more attractive to visitors by taking out a lane of traffic on some streets, making dedicated multi-use paths, adding sidewalk seating, etc.
But almost certainly this won't happen under the current City leadership. They're focused on keeping parking garages free and making onstreet parking paid. Which, as noted above, amounts to a big tax reduction for large retailers and a big revenue decrease for downtown small businesses.
(4) Listen to the people. I'm a believer in science, reason, and expert advice. Especially in certain circumstances. Global warming, for example. It simply isn't possible for someone to come up with accurate insights into global warming by experiencing the weather in their local area. That's why it is called "global" warming.
But the downtown parking meter situation is way different.
Consider: small businesses in downtown Salem live and breathe parking. Most of their customers arrrive by car. They know when people complain about not being able to find a space, or how difficult it is to find a space. They know how much they currently pay in parking taxes and what they get for the money. They know how many employees of downtown businesses park on the street, and how well the City is preventing this from happening so spaces are available to visitors.
The petition to ban downtown parking meters is overwhelmingly supported by downtown small businesses. The people who would be most affected by paid onstreet parking don't want meters installed. Likewise, the people who visit downtown also don't want meters -- as evidenced by the 8,000 signatures the Stop Parking Meters Downtown folks collected in a short time.
[Update: thought of another reason...]
(5) Downtown visits are good for the environment. As noted in (2), downtown businesses compete with "sprawl" businesses -- like those along butt-ugly and walking/biking-unfriendly south Commercial Street and Lancaster Drive. Plus horrendous Keizer Station, where you really need to drive to get to different parts of a freaking quasi mall.
By contrast, downtown offers a lot of shopping, eating, and entertainment possibilities within a few compact blocks.
Strolling down one side of one block on Court Street, I can take a dance class, learn Tai Chi, buy a muffin, get my hair cut, eat meat'y or vegetarian food, have a beer, buy coffee, and do other stuff. In one block. Elsewhere I'd have to drive, park, drive, park, etc. a long ways, burning up fuel, to do those things.
Subsidies are everywhere in our economy. We subsidize farmers for not growing stuff; we subsidize the fossil fuel industry for wrecking the environment.
So I don't get the argument that "downtown parking has to totally pay for itself."
If a compact, vibrant, green (in both regards) Salem downtown is a benefit to society, offering an alternative to energy-inefficient sprawl shopping/living, why shouldn't onstreet parking be kept free to visitors, with businesses continuing to pay a parking tax?
Yes, it'd be wonderful if everybody took mass transit, walked, skateboarded, or biked to downtown. But this isn't going to happen for a long time, if ever. So the cries that keeping onstreet parking free encourages an "autocentric" urban philosophy don't make sense to me. The auto is going to dominate travel in the Salem area for the foreseeable future.
The question is: how, where, and how much are people going to travel by car? I'd much rather see people get in their increasingly common electric/hybrid cars (we own a Volt; great car) and park free in downtown Salem, a central location where they then can walk to various businesses and other places, than have Salemites heading to Commercial Street, Lancaster Drive, Keizer Station, etc.
It may not seem rational that people would burn up several bucks of gas to save a buck on downtown parking meters, but people aren't rational beings. That's why the City is projecting a 20% decline in downtown visitors if meters are installed. They will go elsewhere to avoid the meters. That'd be bad for the environment, though good for Exxon/Mobil.
As noted above, this is a synopsis of why, as a progressive, I oppose downtown parking meters. Read the above-linked posts for more reasons.