Thursday, December 4, 2008

Fun with parking

Parking is showing up a lot in my news reader these past few days. In the first case, the town where I live is reconsidering its plans for at least one massive new parking structure. Some background: Naperville is a fairly standard bedroom community, sitting right on the commuter train line. But it has serious delusions of grandeur, thinking that it deserves to be thought of as a city in its own right. Its growth was kicked off about 40 years ago when AT&T (now Alcatel-Lucent) and Amoco (now BP) put major facilities here; most of the engineers and scientists came to live in the community, the schools became good, and others moved here, including scientists from Fermilab and Argonne.

Of course, Lucent has come upon hard times and has greatly reduced its presence here, and Naperville has settled into being the kind of relatively affluent suburb that would disappear about four hours after the disappearance of Chicago. It has nowhere near the independent presence it would like to think it has, but I suppose that's a relatively harmless conceit.

The biggest shopping destination is a regional mall built in 1975, Fox Valley. This center is technically in Aurora, and I've heard stories that imply that Naperville made a serious blunder when it somehow lost out to its sister to the west. I guess it was kind of a toss-up as to which side of Route 59 the mall would occupy, and Naperville blew it, losing all that nice tax revenue.

You might expect that Naperville's downtown would be in a bad way as are so many others. Yet it continues to thrive, so much so lately (pre-recession) that rents have been bid up to the point where a lot of the mom-and-pop stores are closing or leaving, and downtown is on the verge of becoming a big open-air mall itself. That aside, one of the reasons cited for that success is that the city has intelligently retained free parking. (I'm not talking here about commuter parking; that's a nightmare, with a nine-year waiting list for spots at the train station. There can be nothing more stupid than the failure of the city and the transportation authority to find a fix for that, but that has nothing to do with the downtown situation.)

Occasionally, very occasionally, parking availability can become a problem downtown, and, as a result, there is an undercurrent of clamor to "do something about it." Keep in mind there are a couple of large concrete parking structures, several lots, and a reasonable amount of on-street parking not far from the business district. Part of the issue is that people are unwilling to walk a few blocks, expecting parking to exist right in front of the store at which they want to shop - maybe they watch a little too much TV.

One of the more feckless plans is that of building a parking deck at the library. The library is right at the edge of the business area, so any multi-story structure is going to have an effect on the surrounding residential community, but, despite some protests, the city decided to go ahead with it. Except, as you can see in the linked story above, the city is reconsidering given its severe budget shortfall.

There are, as you might imagine, those who want to forge ahead, no matter how incoherently:

Councilman Richard Furstenau, however, said the council shouldn't change course after already spending at least $1 million in initial design and engineering costs.

"I'm not so sure anything else is going to get built around here or anywhere else and this thing is on target to get built so let's get it built," he said. "I think we'll get a good price on it next spring."

For any of you who fear that we are rushing into saving our economy through infrastructure, remember those words, "let's get it built." A city that has handled parking just perfectly over the last 30 years runs the risk of undoing it by building an out-of-scale deck that would add parking that may well not be needed, but we should spend the money anyway.

Which brings us to our area's big dog, Chicago. Remember how I told you that Naperville has intelligently kept its downtown alive through the maintenance of free parking, allowing their stores to compete with the acres of lots out by Fox Valley (and the shopping sprawl that now inhabits the area around it)?

Chicago has decided to go the other way. Mayor-for-life Daley, in his rush to balance the books by selling off anything that might be thought of as a public asset, has rushed through a sale (well, a 75-year lease, which is essentially the same thing) of Chicago parking. And this time, there isn't even the pretense that private industry will lower costs to the consumer through their relentless competitive quest; rates are going to go up, by a lot (summary here).

There are big fans of so-called congestion pricing, like Matt Yglesias, who believe that the only way to balance supply and demand is to raise rates for scarce goods like traffic lanes and parking spaces. And this idea has a certain appeal, if you ignore the regressive nature of such fees; it all sounds a bit like the Soviet Union, where the major roads would be jammed with traffic except for the one lane that was reserved for Politburo members.

But here's a problem. Parking is being treated as an independent good, not as something which is woven into the fabric of the community. Naperville hasn't made that mistake, they've seen the interaction between parking, the desirability of having a strong downtown, and the tradeoff between one kind of revenue and another.

Chicago is not looking at it that way. Daley will do anything not to raise taxes, so he's parceling out various pieces of the city and assuming that there are no linkages between the parts. And I have no doubt that, in certain cases, that's appropriate.

Here's my personal issue with it. My wife and I drive into the city about 25 times a year for cultural events. We get there around 6:30 or 7:00, and we generally find a parking space without much trouble. And, after 6 PM, parking is free, due, I would guess, to someone's correct perception that there is not as much demand at that hour. We park, walk (sometimes more than a few blocks) to Symphony Center or the Lyric Opera or the Auditorium Theater, and present our tickets.

There are those, and you can find some of them represented in the comments to the Tribune post to which I linked, who say, "why should the rich suburbanites park for free?" That might seem compelling until you think, not all suburbanites are rich, and, we already pay a hefty entertainment tax for the privilege of attending the event. Now we're expected to fork over another, as far as I can tell, $10.50 to go.

This won't affect too many people, I suppose. My wife and I can just choose to skip Chicago entirely, the sales tax is too high there anyway, but there are plenty more things that stink about this. This deal is being rushed through in a couple of days, so there is no opportunity for public comment. It's another example of false economy; the city is retaining enforcement, so it's unclear where the savings are coming from; this seems as pure an example of forfeiting a long-term asset in favor of a short-term revenue enhancement as there is.

But, worst of all, there seems to be no actual work being done trying to balance supply and demand, to implement congestion pricing in any realistic way. The fees are going up, they will extend through 24 hours a day, including Sunday, and that's it.

I'm sure the theory is that the city is so compelling that demand is pretty much inelastic, and maybe that's right. But maybe it's wrong, and once a customer, and the city might want to think of its visitors as customers, is gone, they may well never return. If this deal is a miscalculation, if the city and this private company find that there isn't sufficient demand to impose these rates, by then it may well be too late. Once I get out of the habit of buying subscriptions to cultural events, or find other places I can shop, Chicago will cease to exist for me. Am I really unique? I guess we'll see.

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