Politics · Society

The High Cost of Metered Parking

“Parking is not free”. Except when it is. And it WAS in my town until two years ago when the city installed meters throughout the downtown area, changing the landscape forever like a giant coin operated meteor hurdling into town.

After two years of living with the changes, the city in which I live recently created a Parking Commission whose job it is to study and report to the city council on issues related to parking, particularly downtown. I interviewed for this commission but was not named as one of its members. That said, I will offer my own thoughts on the parking situation and will continue to do so because of its dramatic effect on my own personal and professional life, as well as that of those around me.

The city gave the usual arguments for the meters when they were being considered. Turning over cars in the spaces. Socially engineering the town to reduce the number of cars driving in it. Forcing people into the garages. Of course ultimately it was all about the money, and they were right in their predictions. The city has made millions in revenue on the meters since their installation.

Cities talk about the money they make from the meters to show they are successful and people are continuing to park regardless of their presence. What is always hidden in that are the costs, both direct and hidden. As for direct costs, the city buries the costs of both the meters themselves (including maintenance) and the enforcement of the meters. Even costs such as electricity to run the meters, snow removal to uncover them, even cleaning costs from bird damage is covered up and buried. But not all costs are so obvious. Since the meters have been put in, there has been turnover of over half the shops on the courthouse square downtown. Most of the owners of the shuttered businesses place blame largely on the loss of customers following the meter installation. Even those that remain open, including large chains, report significant loss in revenues following the meters’ installation. I would encourage the city to be more transparent in its finances on this issue and to conduct a more thorough study among the downtown businesses. It is difficult to analyze the issue properly when the data is so hard to come by.

One of the original issues in parking was a symptom of having the county courthouse downtown. Because free two-hour parking was available, many county employees (of which there are over 200), would park on the street and move their cars every two hours to avoid a ticket. Locals even created a name for this: “the two hour shuffle”. It was like roaches scurrying away after someone shined a flashlight on the county courthouse.

One major issue that has contributed to the growth of the downtown parking issue is the explosive growth of the student-oriented apartments downtown. These apartments are not built with enough spaces to provide a parking space for each unit, and many who have cars ultimately house them on the street. The city has given the entire student housing market (read: developers) a boost by approving a never-ending stream of these buildings. I can look out my downtown office window and see three under construction as I type this. Because of these developments, parking downtown is likely to worsen before it improves.

Another issue with downtown parking was that the city built several garages which were costing more than they were bringing in and were largely underutilized. The city blamed the ability to park for free on the street for no one paying to use the garages for long term parking. The city’s solution, after putting in the parking meters, was to allow limited free parking in the garages. But not uniformly. One garage never had free parking. One was free for three hours before 6PM and always free after and on weekends, and another was free for three hours until 6PM. Makes perfect sense in government logic. Of course it confused the residents and visitors alike.

The city itself admitted that the garages were underutilized when the discussion on whether to approve the meters was happening. The garages sat more than half empty nearly all day because they were not free, while people would circle the blocks to look for free street spaces. Therefore, there never really was a parking shortage problem, it was always a parking utilization problem. Even today, several of the city’s lots and garages sit partially unused. The city could easily have cracked down on the free parking without eliminating it. Had the city created a “parking zone” that included the area where the meters are currently located, it could have limited parking to, for example, three hours of total parking in the zone, which would have stopped the “two hour shuffle” roaches and pushed them to the garages.

The city provides parking to its workers at city hall for the price of a $2 parking pass. This pass enables them unlimited parking at the city hall regardless of whether they are working. The county recently spent $9 million of taxpayer funds to build a parking garage solely for the county employees who now could not scurry out of their offices multiple times a day to park for free on the street because the city installed the meters, but instead were forced to either pay to park in the aforementioned underused garages, or continue to park for free three blocks away at the convention center. I am still waiting on the free “downtown office worker” garage for the rest of the taxpayers who work downtown and are now both paying for their own parking and subsidizing that of the government employees who can do so for free (or nearly free).

I expect the meters will remain in place for the foreseeable future. In doing so, I hope that the city can be more transparent in how the money is being spent. The first reason given for their installation was the ongoing expense of the garages. I would expect that the profits from the meters be poured into maintenance and upkeep of roads, and working to pay the garages down to the point of ultimately providing them as a free resource for local citizens to park long term, or at least as a place that employees downtown can apply for fee waivers to park there for free.

I have never paid a parking meter here. I do not pay parking meters, as I already pay for the street and the spaces painted on them via my property taxes. If the only parking in an area is metered, I go elsewhere. Or I go home and shop on Amazon and the local economy misses out altogether. I am not alone in this thinking. Parking meters tell the wrong story. It says this town cares less about the residents, visitors, and storekeepers than it does its own bank account. It sends a message loud and clear to casual visitors that “You are welcome here only if you pay, and only for a short time.” Let’s rethink the whole idea of meters and parking and welcome back those literally driven away by their presence.


The Most Dangerous Words in the English Language

The scariest words together in the English language, besides those involving the government, are “We have always done it this way”.

Saying these words instantly outs you as someone unable to think for themselves, relying on tradition and unwilling to adapt. As someone who regularly works with business owners and senior level managers as part of his day job, I see this mindset far too often. And given that my objective is to teach these business leaders how to do business with the government after often spending years doing business in the private sector, this mindset is creating problems that are also costing them money.

A famous quote of unknown origin (and quotes like this are almost always of unknown origin because they are so good that everyone rushes to claim them) says “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got”. In other words, if you continue to stab yourself repeatedly, you’ll continue to receive stab wounds. If you continue to set money on fire when you receive it, you’ll continue to have flaming piles of useless ash.

Granted, some traditions are useful. Many families traditionally gather for a family meal on Sunday evenings, for example. The Danish tradition of hygge (really more a way of life than tradition) is, in an overly simplistic explanation, a tradition of eliminating the annoying and emotionally overwhelming and embracing the simple and soothing things in life. In the USA, our traditions are often tied to holidays. Think overeating at Thanksgiving and dressing up as a “sexy crayon” for Halloween. These types of traditions tie together families and societies.

The danger of traditions comes when you use them as a reliance on continued old practices without evaluating why you are doing them. Without a fresh set of eyes, businesses can continue on dangerous paths for years because no one would tell them what they were doing was wrong. Businesses often hire “efficiency experts” whose job is to come into an organization and figure out weak points in organizational processes. These consultants work closely with management in an effort to root out “we’ve always done it that way” syndrome with a fresh set of eyes. Sometimes the recommended changes are drastic. Processes change, layoffs happen, printers get tossed into fields and smashed with baseball bats.

I recently came across a great (true?) example of this phenomenon circulating on the internet, referencing research performed in the 1960s on a group of monkeys by G. R. Stephenson:

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under the banana. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the banana.

As soon as he touches the stairs, researchers spray all the other monkeys with cold water.

After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result… all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put the cold water away.

Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one.

The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb the stairs. To his shock, all the other monkeys assault him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one.

The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm, because he is now part of the “team” and has learned the rules.

Now, the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs. Neither do they know why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

Finally, having replaced all of the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs for the banana. If they could talk, they would simply say, “We’ve always done it that way.”

An unwillingness to change in business can be devastating. Less than half of companies on the Fortune 500 just 30 years ago are still in business. Many were bought out by competitors (think McDonnell Douglas being bought by Boeing…if you are flying on a McDonnell Douglas plane, it’s at least 20 years old. Fair warning), while others folded for financial reasons. They did not keep up with the times and experienced leadership that was not willing to accept that what they’d always done was no longer working. How many of you still have a product from Kodak? And no, Bill Cosby being their spokesman was not the (sole) reason for their decline, although in hindsight maybe that wasn’t the best call on their part.

The mindset also extends beyond business. Religion is often passed down this way, both among families and among small groups and societies. Children continue religious practices they have learned from parents who insist on passing down their own religion. Families pass down non-religious traditions as well. Some are good, like the Sunday dinner, as long as it isn’t forced…don’t make the kid eat the pizza if she is fighting obesity and self-conscious. Some are bad, like female circumcision. Some are just weird, like jumping into frozen lakes on New Year’s Day or the annual Spanish tomato fight.

How do we fight back against this mindset? First off, change for the sake of change does not work. You must have a system in place. When a new proposal is submitted, it should emphasize why there should be a change; look at the old, look at the new, and objectively evaluate it. When a discussion takes place, someone should play devil’s advocate, especially if the decision leans towards the status quo. At home, children should be given every opportunity to explore the world and make their own conclusions, not have traditions forced upon them. Adults tend to fall into ruts because they allow routines to take over their lives. Can YOU remember things you did five years ago without Facebook reminding you? Even holidays are an opportunity. “Why do we eat 10 pounds of meat, get drunk, and blow stuff up?”  “Because it’s the 4th of July”.  Maybe there are other options. Look at your day-to-day life and see how you can adapt your routine to better fit the real you.

A willingness to be open to new ideas and not accept things just because “we’ve always done it that way” is how leaders are born. There’s nothing wrong with continuing a good thing, but we move forward by continually asking ourselves why we do the things we do. The most secure and happiest families are ones that take time to figure out what works for them, not just accepting what society says they should do. The great companies of the world got that way because they saw a problem and were willing to explore solutions. Companies grow and thrive because their people are given opportunities to explore and experiment without repercussions, even if they fail. Be a leader at work and at home, not a monkey fighting over a banana.


It’s 2017. Separate is Still Not Equal

I am a young(ish) white guy. What has become strange to me is that being proud of any of those three labels has increasingly gotten me and others like me hit with other labels. And unfortunately, it’s not the “sexiest man alive” type labels.

As a white borderline-millennial male, my opinions on rights of women and minorities can be easily dismissed, and in particular those opinions that are not positive are hit with labels such as “misogynist” or “sexist”. Saying anything bad against another group, or even declaring your own pride in your own status if that happens to be a majority, instantly gets you labeled an “-ist”. Reality: You won’t find someone more willing to fight for equality for women, minorities, etc, but am finding those groups’ own attempts to “create equality” are turning off the other side and making it harder to defend.

An example from my own life. I recently ran for public office. My two opponents in the primary for what was an open seat were both women. One happened to have been not only endorsed by, but served on the board of, the local Democratic Women’s Caucus. The DWC has, in just over a decade, become one of the most powerful forces in local government. Looking at our most recent election results over the past two years, nearly every successful candidate was either a part of the DWC, or married to someone who is, or is otherwise sympathetic or connected to their group. They provided my opponent with not only organization, but more money than either of the other two opponents received from all other sources COMBINED. They have now reached the point where men who are not connected to them are not running for offices or being discouraged to do so by party leadership, myself included, because unless you are otherwise well connected or are a woman you have no chance. You will be out-raised, out-organized, and be fighting uphill. Gee, that sounds familiar. Wasn’t that the reason the DWC came into existence, only in reverse?

The DWC and other women’s caucuses are now at best counterproductive, if not causing actual harm, to the progressive cause. If it was about promoting women, they would not inherently never endorse men when that man could be the world’s biggest feminist. They have turned the conversation from misogyny to misandry. Groups such as those which claim to be progressive are in fact actually promoting divisiveness. Any group that divides a segment of the population works against unity. You cannot claim to be promoting equality while at the same time promoting a division of half the population. Our own Supreme Court has affirmed that separate can never be equal.

I want to live in a society where we do not need groups like that. I don’t want to talk about “women’s caucuses” that exist solely to promote women. I want to be part of a society where we elect the best candidate, whether that person is male or female, black or white, straight or gay, or whatever “identification” they may be. That is how I look to hire people, and that is how I look to elect leaders. Such things like admissions at universities, should be completely blind. I’d even go so far as to say they should not include names, and should be based entirely on the merits of application to prevent male/female bias, or even racial bias, based on names. I would rather focus on inclusiveness rather than excluding groups not like you.

I would prefer to devote my efforts to changing society. For example, if normal gyms make women uncomfortable (and I can see how…they make ME as an overweight guy just trying to run on the treadmill uncomfortable), then let’s push to change that than having women retreat to “women only gyms”. You know who has to be the catalyst for such a change? The men. It takes men calling out other guys who are acting like dickheads at the gym to change the culture. I am not scared of doing so, but it takes more than me. Women protesting, or worse, giving up and running away to create their own club just creates another level of division. I give props to Planet Fitness for attempting to create a culture where everyone feels safe to work out, not by making it a “safe space”, but culturally by saying the divisive, non-inclusive behaviors will not be tolerated. It may take large scale social upheaval like the civil rights movement, or major events such as granting women the right to vote, to change society. But first we have to acknowledge we are all on the same side.

As mom (and the AA) say: the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have a problem. Check. The second step is defining the problem. We’re there. The third step is identifying barriers to success. Here’s one: It benefits no one to create untruths to make the other side look bad. For example, let’s talk about the “wage gap”. It does not exist. At least not how many women’s groups report it. I am a stats guy, and acknowledge that stats can be twisted to meet any number of narratives. A 2009 labor study showed there to be a gap of about 6%, not the 23% spouted during last year’s presidential campaign that was an average of all full-time working male salaries vs female. Yes, I’d still call 6% significant. Then you look closer at the categories used. “Social science”, for example, uses everything from economics (a high paying, male dominated category) to sociology (a lower paying, female dominated category). In fact, males make up over 60% of the graduates in 9 of the top 10 majors with the average highest paying post-college jobs, while women make up over 60% of the grads in 9 of the top 10 lowest paying post-college jobs. If you then talk about “average wages”, you are starting off on the wrong foot to begin with.

Using straight numbers is deceptive at best. Spouting untruths, especially those that have been largely debunked, does not win people over to your side, and often turns them against you. Don’t make it harder to win people over to your side, and especially don’t make it harder for those on the other side who already stand with you to continue to do so.

So let’s all come together in one big happy family. While most of my arguments were focused on men vs. women, the same can apply to race, gender, or any other division in our society. A world where we give the same opportunities to the poor black girl as the rich white boy benefits us all in that we maximize the output of everyone. That poor black girl may one day be a doctor, and would never have had that opportunity without help. The wise one, Mr. Michael Jackson, said if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself then make a change. These are words to live by in our society of divisiveness. Make that change.