My daddy told me this story. He was a young doctor. It was the 1930's, the Depression, but he was doing okay, and he'd recently bought a car -- a used one. His dentist's office was in the newly opened Rockefeller Center, in midtown Manhattan, and one day, when he had an appointment, he decided to drive his car. He drove down Fifth Avenue and parked his car directly in front of Rockefeller Center, on Fifth Avenue. And when he was done, he came out and got in his car and drove home.
That was the dream. Autos would make everything easy. It didn't last long.
I remember talking to an older friend, Bill Moennig, about his relationship with the Schuylkill Expressway. For many years Bill ran the family fiddle shop on Locust Street in Center City Philadelphia -- make, repair, buy, and sell, as he used to say. He was modest about his client list. And yes, he was the father of Katherine Moennig.
In the 1950's Bill, like so many Americans, heard the siren call of the suburbs, and he moved out of town and commuted in on the newly constructed Schuylkill (I-76). The early years, he said, were a charm, a joy. But then, with every passing year, the traffic got worse. And worse. And so he eventually gave up and moved back to town.
I didn't grow up in Philadelphia. I grew up in New York City. And I remember listening, as a child, to ads on the radio promoting the newly opened Connecticut Turnpike. The ads urged dads to pile the wife and kids into the car on a weekend day, and drive out to the country -- Connecticut, to be specific -- where they could ride along easily, admiring the scenery, as their car was eating up the miles. Eating up the miles. I remember that very specifically.
I don't know if you've been on I-95 in Connecticut recently, but you don't eat the miles. The miles eat you.
It's hard to imagine today how romantic cars were right after World War II. A generation traumatized by depression and war looked forward to something different, and the country's leaders responded with a new vision built around the car. City-dwellers would move to new suburbs where there was plenty of elbow room, and dad would commute to work by car, soon driving on brand-new roads called Interstates.
At home, mom's drudgery almost vanished with the advent of clothes washers, dishwashers, and other labor saving devices. Dinner became a snap with new inventions like frozen peas. Tired of breast-feeding your babies? Well, how about some specially formulated formula, designed to optimize the little darling's nutrition?
The Ultimate Labor-Saving Device
But the ultimate labor-saving device was the car. Think about it. What did the car replace? The horse and wagon, which is why, early on, it was known as a horseless carriage.
Cars are a lot less work than a horse and wagon. I've never harnessed a horse and hitched it to a wagon, but I have saddled a horse. It takes a fair amount of time, and you need to cooperate with a horse that may or may not want to be saddled. With a car, you get in, turn the key in the ignition, and drive away.
People seem generally to think of the car as a replacement for trains. But trains are still around. When was the last time you saw a horse and wagon?
Cars were a definite improvement. However, there was a problem with the suburban-interstate highway model: It was predicated on a few cars and a lot of land.
But the cars always managed to multiply faster than the road could grow. I remember years ago, probably in the 1960's, listening to a talk by a wise old man who had spent his life wrestling with transportation issues. He said, "You can't make more room for cars. You can only make room for more cars."
It was a statement worthy of a Zen master. I didn't understand it for several days. Then it hit me. Elbow room is over. You can build as many highways as you want. The cars will come and fill them.
And, of course, that's pretty much what we've seen -- not just when cars are moving, but also when they're parked (which is 95 percent of the time).
I've watched this Malthusian pessimism play out in my own parking life. When we first moved to Philly from New York City in 1979, we didn't own a car. After all, the old core of the city has been eminently walkable for more than three centuries -- and today, of course, it is eminently bikeable.
For fifteen years we walked, we took buses, subways, trains, and the occasional taxicab, and whenever we needed to we rented a car. It worked just fine. (Today we also have Zipcar and Uber.)
Then my son went to high school in Germantown, and it really became time to buy a car. So we did. And I parked it on the street.
I hated it, but I hung on for about five years. Things started out tight, and they just kept getting tighter.
What finally sent me into the garage, though, wasn't the congestion. It was the damage to the car. I can't remember the exact number of times a roaming thief smashed one of my windows. I think it was two or three. And then one morning I came out and my hubcaps were gone. This was across the street from my house. Another morning I came out and a whole wheel was gone. Someone had jacked up the car and taken the whole right-front wheel -- rim and tire. He left the car jacked up, and he left my lug nuts on the hubcap on the ground. I call him the gentleman bandit. All this happened on the street next to Graduate Hospital.
The Final Straw
The final straw came one day when I had a particularly nice parking place on Lombard at the corner of 18th. It was the first spot in the line, so you didn't have to back-and-forth to get out. You could just pull away. During the afternoon an 18-wheeler turning from Lombard onto 18th sideswiped the right side of the car with the tail of his trailer. I know this because a neighbor saw it happen and left a note on my windshield.
After we got done paying for the bodywork, my wife and I had a different perspective on the relative price of on-street and off-street parking. We put the car in the garage, and we've been keeping it there for about fifteen years now.
If you stop and think about it, and I often have, cars are rather fragile things. Their exteriors are made of glass, plastic, thin pieces of sheet metal -- all things that don't stand up to impact very well. So why do we just leave them out on the street? Back in the horse and buggy days, you wouldn't have parked your horse at the curb overnight.
The Chokehold Line
But let's get back to the main point, which is what I call the chokehold line. I live in the southwest quadrant of old Philadelphia, which extends from Broad Street west to the Schuylkill River, and from Market Street in the north down to South Street. William Penn put a large square in the middle of each of his quadrants. Ours is called Rittenhouse.
We're choking on our cars, and it's getting worse. When I first started parking on the street, you could actually get a spot on Lombard or Pine. It might take a while, and it might be five blocks from your house, but you could do it.
On the other hand, Spruce Street, directly north of Pine, was impossible. I quickly gave up looking for a spot on Spruce, or the streets further north.
So the chokehold line was Spruce. Then I noticed something interesting. The chokehold line was moving south. It swept through Pine and Lombard (this is after I put the car in the garage). For awhile it was on South Street; now I estimate it's on Bainbridge, and it's clearly headed for Carpenter.
Why is the parking congestion getting so much worse? Well, call it a problem of success. Many Americans, it turns out, are tired of elbow room, and cow tipping and tractor pulls, and they're giving up their splendid isolation and moving back to town, where they can rub elbows with humans. It turns out that people are social creatures, and they enjoy being around other people. Who knew?
In the Rittenhouse quadrant, this has led to an increase in population that is spreading south to Washington Avenue.
Many of these new people, particularly the younger ones, are arriving without cars, and quite a few of them are getting around on bicycles.
But quite a few want to keep their cars, and recently the percentage of households in Center City that own cars has ticked up slightly. Even so, 43 percent of Center City households do not own a car, and in some parts of Center City the figure is 75 percent. In my neighborhood 52 percent do not own a car.
Still, there are enough new people, and enough cars, that the chokehold line keeps moving. And people are unhappy.
Here's the complaint. I took the family out to dinner. We came home about 9 o'clock. I let my wife and kids off at the house, and then I started looking for a spot. And there were no spots. None at all.
So what do we do? The zealots, the Savonarolas, would have us ban cars from Center City, leaving the streets to pedestrians, and bicyclists.
Louis Kahn Had an Idea
Louis Kahn, one of America's greatest architects, actually proposed something like this in the early 1950's. He thought that Center City should be a place for pedestrians (the rubbing elbows thing), and that cars should be parked in large garages on the periphery (think Vine Street and 15th, right by the I-476 exit).
As you may have noticed, things didn't go that way. The people who were paying for the new buildings downtown had no intention of walking four blocks to the office. They would drive to the garage in their building, and take an elevator to the executive suite. They would not set foot on a sidewalk.
The dream of parking at the curb in front of your home can shift, but it never dies.
It's not just business executives. Look at the curbside parking around City Hall. The signs say City Council Only. My favorite is City Council President Only. That's how you know you've succeeded in life.
Culturally, we don't want to be in the business of ordering people to give up their cars. It's a losing game.
Others suggest that we go with inertia and just let things play out. Sooner or later, maybe when the chokehold line gets to the Navy Yard, people will give up their cars because they can no longer stand the pain.
I'm opposed to pain. When it comes to parking, there's a lot of it out there. I know. Just start talking about changing the way we do parking, and people (including my wife) go ballistic immediately.
We don't need more pain. We need less pain.
So what do we do? I've been doing some reading, and there are some good solutions out there. Donald Shoup has a Ph.D. in economics from Yale, he is a professor of urban planning at UCLA, and he has spent the last several decades studying parking. His book, The High Cost of Free Parking, is 800 pages long, and I'm not suggesting that you read it. His ideas, though, have gotten around, most notably to San Francisco, which, with the help of a federal demonstration grant, has reformed the way it does parking in the busiest parts of the city (see the website SFpark.org). Other cities have also tinkered with their parking, including New York City (ParkSmart), Washington, D.C., and a bunch of smaller places.
Things can get better, and it's not just a theory.
Storage v. Access
Here's the basic problem: storage v. access. Currently in Parking Zone 1, where I live, we're all about storage. My block is stickered for Zone 1, and with the exception of the handicapped spot, it is almost always full. The underlying parking rule is a 2-hour limit, but if you have a Zone 1 sticker you can park there forever. And there are days when it feels like that's what people are doing.
Again, this is a problem of success. People move to town, they keep their car, but most of the time they don't need it. They walk to work. They take Uber to the restaurants on East Passyunk. What do they need their car for? The weekend. Grocery shopping. Driving your wife to the train station (I'm talking about myself now). Vehicle Miles Traveled plummet.
But still the cars are there, and storage blocks access. Where is my plumber going to park? Where is the guy who's taken his family out to dinner going to park at 9 p.m.? There are no spots.
Well, guess what? On page 696 of his book (2011 edition), Professor Shoup suggests destickering a few spots on each block. The spots would no longer be available for long-term storage, but they would provide access.
I know this will work. In the 1700 block of South Street, the south side of the street is stickered for Zone 1; the north side is not. The south side is almost always full; the north side is where my plumber parks.
Immediately, of course, the storage caucus will object. Vociferously. Even though it appears they didn't let out a peep when the handicapped spots went in. Or the Zipcar spots.
Parking is always a political issue. I have several thoughts.
First, the storage caucus is a relatively small one. As I mentioned, 52 percent of the people in my neighborhood don't own a car. And then let's look at the car owners. A bunch of them, like me, are in the garage on South Street. But hold on a minute; there are other off-street spots. In the 1700 block of Lombard, there are 16 on-street spots. There are 41 off-street spots.
Think this is a fluke? Just north of Lombard there are three streets -- Addison, Waverly (which is really an alley at this point), and Pine. There is no parking on Addison. On Pine there are 15 curbside spots. On Waverly, more or less tucked into people's back yards, there are 34 off-street spots. They're not pretty, but they get the job done.
One should use caution extending such a small sample to all of Center City, or even the Rittenhouse quadrant. But let's just say that 20 percent of households are parking on the street. The actual numbers can vary a lot from this estimate without invalidating my basic argument: Only a small percentage of residents have a stake in long-term storage on the street, whereas 100 percent of residents have a stake in access.
With access, our friends and family can come visit us. A story: This past Labor Day weekend my wife's brother and his wife came in from New Jersey and had lunch with us at Parc, up on Rittenhouse Square. They found a parking spot on Locust Street in front of the restaurant. Then, later, they came to our house to see some changes we'd made, and they found a spot in front of our house. Any other time of the year, this would not have happened.
But it could be an everyday thing, if we managed our parking instead of surrendering it to storage.
And, remember, the 20 percent who do store their cars on the street will also benefit from better access. When you come home at 9 o'clock at night after dinner there will be spot. So you have to get up and move the car at 8 a.m. You found a spot.
The dream of park in front of my house, drive to work on an empty road, and park in front of the office is a seductive one. Recently I was at a Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting where a very nice young woman insisted that the parking spot in front of her house belonged to her, and that the students from neighboring La Salle should not be allowed to park there.
Sorry. Elbow room is over. But if we manage what we have properly, things can be pretty good.
So it's not Fifth Avenue, it's not in front of Rockefeller Center, it's not even in front of your house, but it's only a short walk to home, and you're happy.
Because you're a grown-up.