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Nothing Left to Park For
We don't always want what we want
When I was a little kid, my dad told me this story, which I think was supposed to be amusing, but I found it kind of creepy, and I still remember it. This is my telling of it:
A real pool shark who absolutely loves winning a game of billiards dies and goes to heaven, and heaven, it turns out, is a pool hall. He picks up his cue and gets playing. First game in the spirit, he wrecks his opponent. “This is great!” he says. He keeps playing games, and he keeps winning. “Maybe dying sharpened my skills,” he chuckles, feeling pretty smug.
But a few days go by, and it starts to dawn on him that no matter what he does, he wins. He even tries to lose a game, and he can’t. Soon he’s bored out of his mind, and it’s only been a week. So he goes up to the hall manager and asks, just to make sure, “This is…upstairs, right?” The manager shakes his head and grins. “Tired of winning already?”
The pool shark is in hell.
I think of that story when I see an image like this (from here—many more):
(The other thing I think of is the scene in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston spots the ruined Statue of Liberty.)
When the roads are all wide and the parking is plentiful and free, there’s nothing left to drive to or park for. We’ve gotten what we wanted. It’s hell. Maybe it isn’t really what we wanted.
I agree with the policy trend in many cities towards reducing or eliminating parking-minimum regulations, i.e. the government mandating a certain number of parking spaces per square feet of retail space (or whatever use it might be.) I don’t think that’s the government’s role. It makes it a lot harder to start businesses and build reasonably priced housing, because it effectively forces entrepreneurs and real-estate developers to subsidize motorists. What if your customers arrive by transit or biking or are happy to park on a side street and walk one or two minutes? What if you’re a one-car family? Why is subsidizing parking your responsibility?
It’s especially tricky in urban environments where parking-minimum regulations were enacted long after the form of the place had already been determined. So either buildings turn into parking, or storefronts sit empty, because the cost of actually providing that required parking is just too high. (It’s a similar conundrum to the “nonconforming lot” issue: situations where a newer zoning code retroactively renders an old lot out of compliance, meaning it cannot be altered in any way without triggering an effectively impossible requirement to bring it up to code.) For this exact reason, Flemington, New Jersey (about which I’ve written a lot) scrapped the town’s parking regulation on Main Street. The amount of parking isn’t changing; what’s changing is the feasibility of actually opening up shop on Main Street.
So that’s what I think. But I’m fascinated by how there are two frames of thinking about this. One is sort of social-engineering adjacent. It goes like this: “People say they want free, easy parking, but they don’t really know what’s good for them. Too much parking squeezes out the actual stuff. We need to show them what we know they really want.”
Versus: “Excessive parking is an expensive burden placed on business owners, developers, and non-motorists by municipal governments. We don’t need government telling us how to use our land or run our businesses. People can be trusted, markets can be trusted, to find the optimal amount of parking and price it more less fairly.”
Which of these resonates with you depends on how you think we got here, what you think of capitalism, etc. Big questions. Not all answerable as matters of fact.
A lot of the skepticism of this cluster of issues—zoning reform, parking reform, bike lanes, all that stuff—comes down to people seeing it as a species of top-down tinkering. As government sticking its hands into the natural order of things.
How do I see it? As I suggest above, I tend towards a market-friendly view, generally letting people decide what makes sense for them and not placing undue burdens on them. But the social-engineering-adjacent framing also speaks to me. It’s not that I think government’s job is to determine or tell “what we really want.” It’s more that I feel deeply that we often need to be pushed to see what we really need, and to do the right thing. We will argue that we want to drive breezily and park easily, even when it squeezes out the reason for doing it in the first place.
I think of this incident from our vacation in Croatia. Here’s a long excerpt:
We had a hotel room at a small hotel in Split’s old city center, and the hotel advertised free parking. Our dinner reservation that night was at a steakhouse about 20 minutes from our hotel, which we figured would be an easy drive. (This is important.) The parking was not in front of or next to the hotel, but rather at a separate address. So we tried navigating there, calling the hotel when we couldn’t find it, and ending up in an alleyway that had a few parking spaces but was not, apparently, the right one.
We called the hotel again, and the owner sent her receptionist to go find us and show us the right location. About ten minutes went by, and the owner herself, Lina, showed up. The receptionist had also gotten lost! Lina walked us to the parking area, which was just a minute or so away, as I drove slowly behind her. It was another narrow alley with cars parallel parked wherever they could fit. A bit of a challenge, but doable enough.
However, Lina pointed to a small gated parking lot, which her hotel actually owned. An actual parking lot! Even better. It was on my left, and I thought I could simply make a left turn in, and voila. But the alley was too narrow for that. Instead, she guided me to make a right turn into an intersecting street, reverse into the parking lot very carefully (there was a cement wall on one side of the entrance), maneuver back and to the right between two cars at the back of the lot after clearing the cement wall, and then pull forward into a spot on the other side of the wall.
It sounds easier than it was. Whatever subtle maneuvering Lina expected me to make, I was unable to, and I couldn’t understand exactly what I was doing wrong. Learning to drive in the American suburbs does not prepare you for this sort of thing. After three failed attempts to back into the lot without slamming the car into the cement wall, both of us were a little exasperated.
“You’re trying to park in the old city,” she said, as if it should have been obvious to me that I was going to have a hard time. Hey, I’m not the one advertising free parking. But nonetheless she was very nice and helpful. “If you can’t do it, I can try,” she said, and I very gladly let her take the wheel.
“You’ll just have to help me a little,” she added after sitting down. “I don’t know how to drive an automatic.”
Needless to say, we didn’t drive to our steakhouse that night.
Actually, we didn’t touch the car once during our three days in Split. The parking and driving situation in the old city basically made the car a liability, something too risky and stressful to use. The American in me was frustrated. In fact, I wanted to drive to a Walmart and sit in the massive parking lot and luxuriate in its space and convenience, idling my engine with the air conditioner on full blast (Europe and air conditioning don’t always go in the same sentence).
My urbanist convictions momentarily gave way to that frustration, and the idea that I was at fault for bringing a car into the city only made me more annoyed. Walkability might be a nice novelty, but sometimes you just have to get somewhere.
However, once we checked in, got to our room, and went out to explore historic Split, all that frustration melted away. The fact is that if everyone could park conveniently in the old city, there would be no old city. Americans learned this the hard way—though we did it to ourselves—to the point that many American downtowns have more parking than they do actual buildings. It’s always sobering to think about what once stood on virtually every urban parking lot.
There are cars in Split, and there are wide, asphalt streets just like ordinary American streets. But there are also many stone-paved car-free streets, like the one our hotel was along. They’re so narrow, so quiet, that you don’t even perceive them as streets. The car-free city almost feels like a park. But it’s a real, living place.
I thought, however, about that frustration I felt. I wondered how long it would take me to truly get used to these trade-offs. As I wrote awhile back, the transition is the hard part. A couple of weeks, maybe a month, of frustration, might keep me from ever embracing a lifestyle that I truly believe is better. We all know this, actually: the best thing isn’t the easiest thing; no pain, no gain; nothing worth doing is easy; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
This isn’t really about policy; it’s about being human. I’ll just leave you with that.
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