Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Crossing 15th Street

It is forbidden to cross 15th street on the south side of Arch. There are two little men who say so. They're stick figures, caught in the act of walking, and they each have a red line drawn through them.

It doesn't matter. People cross here with great regularity. All kinds of people, not just distracted people talking on cell phones. That's because everything about this intersection - except for the little men - tells people that this is an ordinary intersection with four functioning crosswalks.

I understand that the traffic engineers are trying to cope with traffic coming off the Vine Street Expressway, the Ben Franklin Parkway, and even westbound Arch street. But they really should throw in the towel, paint zebra stripes on the south side of Arch, and take down the little men.

I know this will slow the cars down, particularly the ones that are trying to turn onto 15th street. So be it.

See also Love Park Garage: Close the 15th Street Exit.

Monday, December 14, 2015

My New Favorite Alley

It's the 800 block of Pemberton street. I don't know that it's Isaiah Zagar's masterwork, but it's the piece that speaks most directly to me. And I know why. It's a complete environment. There are a few spots on this block where Isaiah's murals give way, but to my mind that simply provides a pleasing counterpoint.

This is basically a trash alley. No houses front on it. But look at what they've done. The art is one thing. But there's also the fact that a whole little community came together, with the artist, to make this happen.

When I first walked onto this street a few weeks ago, I had a feeling that I don't often get. I felt I was being embraced by a slightly different world. One that Isaiah - and his patrons - had created. I know they didn't create it just for me. But at that moment, that's what it felt like.

This is the feeling that I want to have when I walk onto the 1400 block of Moravian, by the Union League and Banana Republic. I know it wouldn't look the same. But these alleys are small, almost womb-like, and they have a way of speaking to us that the Vine Street Expressway will never have. If only we will let them.

The 800 Pemberton block is only about two blocks from the Whole Foods market on South Street, at 9th. But it can be a bit tricky to find. On South, walk east past 9th, then south on Schell. At Bainbridge, do a little dog-leg and continue on Schell. Pemberton will show up on the left before you hit Fitzwater. It only extends from Schell to Mildred, so you can't actually get there from 9th or 8th.

Enjoy your walk. Isaiah has been doing a bunch of new work in this neighborhood. And enjoy 800 Pemberton. A fully realized environment.

And here's the neighboring block of Kenilworth street. Note the person sitting outside in a chair. She's kind of small, but she's there. This is what a city can do when it's not drowning in cars.

See also Alleys.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Love Park Garage: Close the 15th Street Exit

The traffic on 15th street at Love Park is a mess. One of the reasons is the 15th street exit from the Love Park garage. The exit ramp curves onto the street in something of a slip lane, which rapidly becomes a right-turn only lane. So people who want to keep going south on 15th need to change lanes quickly. And they do.

Meanwhile, there is no pedestrian crosswalk between Love Park and the Municipal Services Building. You're not supposed to cross 15th on the south side of Arch. And yet people do, with great regularity. It's quite dangerous, and one of the contributing factors to that danger is the garage exit, which adds complexity to an already complicated intersection.

So let's all rummage in our closets and find the hat that says Human Factors Engineer. Now put it on. The crossing is dangerous for pedestrians. We've forbidden them to cross, and still they cross. What should we do? Maybe make the crossing safer?

At this point a lot of people are probably thinking that West is crazy. After all, you can't close the exit. How will the cars get out of the garage?

Well, there's another exit, which actually lets out onto Cherry street, near the Friends Center. This exit has the advantage of keeping motorists off 15th street and out of the scrum on the west side of City Hall.

It's actually a better exit for people headed to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway or the Vine Street Expressway. If they come out the 15th street exit, they have to turn right on to JFK Boulevard, right again 16th, and then negotiate the rather gnarly intersection at 16th and Arch.

Another advantage of closing the 15th street exit is that it would facilitate installation of a bike lane on 15th street. It's my understanding that 15th street is supposed to be the southbound complement to the northbound bike lane on 13th street, joining South Philly to Temple University and other points in North Philly.

By the way, the 13th street lane seems to be working pretty well these days. The Parker Hotel construction site at Spruce is a mess, but one that is easily fixed with a few Jersey barriers. And the police have, bless their hearts, apparently come to the conclusion that the bike lane near the Criminal Justice Center is indeed a bike lane, and not their personal parking lot.

Over on 15th street things are a lot more problematic. I'm thinking you're down to Spruce before there's much hospitality for bicyclists. The crucial blocks run from Vine down to Market, and the only way to provide safe transit for bicycles here is to install a protected bike lane, which would have the added advantage of linking to the proposed bike lanes on JFK and Market.

By the way, people do ride bikes down this part of 15th street, even with the current conditions. As I watch them, my hair stands on end.

I hope this is the last installment of what I would like to call my Love Park Traffic Trilogy. The other two are Love Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th Street? and Fixing Arch Street at Love Park.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fixing Arch Street at Love Park

I actually feel a little sorry for the 1500 block of Arch street. It's a place where several powerful transportation ideas smash into one another, and the results are not pretty.

The intersection of Arch with 16th street is particularly ugly. It's a five-point intersection, and two of those points have two-way traffic.

The basic rectangular street grid here -- 16th street and Arch street -- was blessed a few years back with the arrival of Paul Cret's Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Don't get me wrong. I love the parkway -- modeled on the Champs Elysees in Paris, and all that. But I'm not sure anybody has ever really figured out what to do with the parkway traffic when it meshes with William Penn's street grid at 16th and Arch, coming in at an odd angle, just to make things more interesting. If somebody did figure it out, I'm not seeing the solution when I stand there at the corner and watch what goes on.

If the parkway weren't there, Arch street and 16th street would still be quite busy. 16th rumbles north to the Vine Street Expressway and points north; it also allows for a left turn onto both Arch and the outbound lanes of the parkway. Arch street is a major east-west artery that is one-way westbound for much of its length. But in the 1500 block, Arch is two-way.

Why? Well, the inbound parkway traffic has to go somewhere. The solution is to dump it into two lanes eastbound in the 1500 block of Arch and then force it to turn right on 15th, where it quickly enters the major scrum on the west side of City Hall (another story for another day).

So the 1500 block of Arch has three westbound lanes plus two eastbound through lanes -- plus another eastbound lane, closest to the park, which feeds into the garage underneath the park.

(I forgot to mention that 16th also has a right-turn only lane. Traffic coming up 16th can go straight, pick one of two left-turn options, or turn right and go into the garage, or go east on Arch and turn south on 15th. I'm still trying to figure out the utility of coming north on 16th and then almost immediately going south on 15th into the City Hall scrum. But I've watched people do it.)

Anyway, a pedestrian trying to get from Love Park to the One Parkway building, on the north side of Arch at 16th, must cross six lanes of traffic that is headed in a number of different directions.

One Parkway is a city office building with many workers and many visitors throughout the day. I've had reason to go there quite a bit over the years. Early on, I discovered a trick. The traffic lights are set up so you can cross halfway and stand at the median strip until the westbound traffic on Arch gets a red light and stops. (Well, usually it stops. After a while.) Then you can cross the rest of Arch, land on the sidewalk, and take a breath.

Lots of people do this. It's almost the normal way to cross. Six lanes, remember. I'm thinking it would be nice to have a little traffic island here, in the middle of the street. Then we could say the street was helping the pedestrians, instead of ignoring them.

It would probably be a good idea to extend the median island well eastward from the intersection at 16th. Motorists headed west on Arch occasionally decide to make a U-turn near 16th so they can enter the Love Park garage. This does happen with some frequency. I was out there the other day, for a little less than an hour, and it happened three times. A raised median island would at least discourage this behavior.

As for the intersection at 15th and Arch, I understand that changes are being made as part of the Love Park reconstruction. I don't know what the changes are, but I'm going to hazard a guess and suggest that it may make sense to extend the median island the full length of the 1500 block.

Add a little greenery on the island, and it would extend the aura of Love Park almost to the family court.

See also See also Love Park UndergroundExtend the DiagonalTurning JFK Boulevard into an Extension of Love Park, Love Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th Street?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

About that Parking Lot in South Philly

You know, the Acme lot at 9th and Passyunk. I wrote about it last year. The Acme and the 202 space parking lot and a few other things are located on a superblock that was the site of the old Moyamensing Prison. The lot is much too large for the store, but I guess the designers couldn't think of anything else to do with the land.

Anyway, this part of South Philly is famous for its tight parking, particularly at night, so a while ago the Acme quietly started letting people park in the lot overnight. Well, one thing has led to another; when I visited the lot at 10 a.m. this morning, a Sunday, the lot was nearly full, and a very substantial portion of the cars had the above flyer under a windshield wiper. It gently suggests that the freebie only works from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m.

You could see this coming a mile away. Free parking spaces attract cars the way a dead horse attracts flies. And the cars are about as good at following instructions as the flies are.

As I argued last year, this should be a paid lot, similar to the one next to the Eastern State Penitentiary in Fairmount.

That's step one. Step two is to redevelop this site along the lines of the Piazza in Northern Liberties -- a series of perimeter buildings around a center square. Build the new Acme first, over on Passyunk where it has always belonged. Then demolish the existing store and complete the redevelopment of the site.

The area above the new store should be given over to parking, just as happens on South Street, over the old SuperFresh (now an Acme) and the Whole Foods next door.

The paid lot, and the follow-on garage, would not attract people looking for free parking, but it would give people who couldn't find free parking a place to go. When you're tired enough, and frustrated enough, you're happy to have even a paid place to park, so you can go home and go to sleep. Also it would be a good resource for the many restaurants in the neighborhood.

See also Once There Was a Prison, Off-Street Parking at the Italian Market - Current Conditions.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Richardson Dilworth, an Urbanist for the Ages

I was born and grew up in New York City. I didn't move to Philadelphia until I was in my thirties. Aside from Benjamin Franklin and Grace Kelly, I think the first Philadelphian I heard of was Edmund Bacon (father of Kevin). And the second was Richardson Dilworth.

But I confess I didn't know very much about Dilworth until I sat down and read Peter Binzen's excellent 2014 biography, Richardson Dilworth, Last of the Bare-Knuckled Aristocrats. I didn't know he'd been a 19-year-old Marine rifleman at the battle of Belleau Wood in World War I, or that he'd won the Silver Star on Guadalcanal in World War II, or that he'd struggled with alcohol for most of his life.

And what a life it was. Born to wealth, educated at Yale and Yale Law School, a successful law career, then four jobs with the City of Philadelphia -- treasurer, district attorney, mayor, and president of the Philadelphia Board of Education.

And what a cast of characters. Moses Annenberg, one of Dilworth's most important law clients. Jack Kelly, Olympic oarsman and father of Grace. Albert M. Greenfield, Gus Amsterdam, Bernard Watson.

Sam Dash, later famous as counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, worked for Dilworth. So did William T. Coleman, later U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., later chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

A bold and innovative reformer with a calculated temper and a remarkably disarming sense of humor, Dilworth's breakthrough moment came in 1951, when he teamed with Joe Clark to oust a Republican political machine that had run Philadelphia for 67 years. Clark became mayor; Dilworth became district attorney, and then succeeded Clark as mayor.

As district attorney, Dilworth did something that would be worthy of note even today. He insisted on fair trials. As one observer put it, "He wanted to make sure justice was done and if mistakes were made to admit them." (P. 116.)

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy tangled with Dilworth in 1953. McCarthy was busy hunting for communists in the government, and Alger Hiss had been convicted of perjury. Dilworth reportedly said that 1,000 Alger Hisses hurt less than one McCarthy. McCarthy challenged Dilworth to a televised debate, and at the debate Dilworth defended his statement. "We can put traitors in jail," Dilworth said to McCarthy, "but demagogues remain too long above and beyond the processes of the law." (P. 119.)

Elected mayor in 1955, Dilworth turned out to be an urbanist for the ages. His work with Ed Bacon -- particularly the revival of Society Hill -- is well known. Other stories, less well known, place him at the center of debates that are going on today.

Parking in South Philly was a problem even in 1961, when, as Binzen puts it, "the mayor proposed requiring residents to pay for overnight parking spaces in front of their houses. The proceeds of the $40-a-year licenses" -- about $320 in today's dollars -- "were to be earmarked for building off-street parking lots.  Such a plan worked in Milwaukee, but Dilworth's scheme got nowhere. When he confronted his critics at a stormy public meeting, rock throwers targeted the building. A city councilman, Tom Foglietta, was cut by flying glass." (P. 140.)

Dilworth also wanted to ban cars in the center of the city. Writes Binzen, "His concept was to create a restricted area that would comprise some 400 blocks, from 8th Street west to the Schuylkill River and from Spring Garden Street south to Lombard and South Streets." (P. 151.)

After leaving the mayor's office, Dilworth became involved in a project to develop high-speed rail service between Boston and Washington. President Kennedy encouraged his work, but Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, was an entirely different proposition. When he finally got to meet with Johnson, Dilworth says, "It was very clear that he just couldn't be less interested. He just sat there wondering what the hell we were talking about. All he could envision was where he lived. And he would either get a helicopter or an airplane or else get in that enormous Lincoln and drive on a straight road to Austin at 95 miles an hour. So who needed or wanted a train?" (Pp. 155-156.)

Well, we do.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Love Park Redesign: Why Are There Still Five Traffic Lanes on 16th Street?

I am a great fan of the Love Park redesign. Final plans were presented in a public meeting at the Free Library on Monday, October 26. I do have one improvement opportunity. It relates to the park's footprint.

At the meeting, Deputy Parks Commissioner Mark Focht related that, in addition to the removal of the slip lane at the southwest corner of the park, the southern sidewalk has been extended approximately eight feet to the south. This is a wonderful thing.

On the west side of the park, however, the treatment of the street remains as it currently is, with a total of five traffic lanes jostling northward. Removing one lane would not increase congestion, but it would calm traffic, particularly at the northwest corner of the park, where 16th street intersects with Arch and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. This is probably the park's gnarliest street corner, which is saying a lot.

It's worth remembering that, up to Chestnut street, 16th has only two traffic lanes. It then bulges out over the next two blocks, eventually reaching five lanes as it passes by the park. Then, in the next block, up by the Cret Cafe, it's back to three lanes.

On 16th street adjacent to the park, the right-hand lane of the five is a turn-only lane that feeds the entrance to the Love Park garage, on the north side of the park. Because of the configuration of Arch Street, the only other thing you can do if you turn right at that corner is go back down 15th street. Why would someone going up 16th street want to go back down 15th street? Maybe you left your cell phone at home.

Finally, removing a traffic lane would allow the park to expand. Love Park is not a large place, and the extra space would be useful.

On the evening of Thursday, October 29, I went out and observed the right-turn only lane on 16th street, as it intersects with Arch. I watched for 15 minutes, from 5:08 to 5:23 p.m.

Seven cars and one SugarHouse Casino bus turned right during those 15 minutes. Multiplying by four gives a rate of 32 vehicles per hour, during the evening rush. Much of the time I watched, the lane was completely empty.

There are times -- for instance, the morning rush -- when we could expect more traffic in this lane. But of course there would be less traffic in the other lanes. 16th street is basically a get outta town street.

We really can live without that right-turn only lane. Time to extend Love Park to the west.

See also Love Park Underground, Extend the Diagonal, Turning JFK Boulevard into an Extension of Love Park.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mr. Piketty's Book

Will Democracy Control Capital, or Will Capital Control Democracy?

What I'm about to talk about is not exactly breaking news. Back in the 1920's there was a famous song called "Ain't We Got Fun." One of the more memorable lines is "The rich get richer and the poor get children." This line shows up in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

The song is putting a humorous twist on an older, more depressing line: "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." This is quite an old idea, and it precedes Karl Marx, whose writings seek to explore the mechanisms by which all this happens.

Calling people Marxists or communists is an easy way to dismiss those who write about the dynamic of inequality. After all, communism collapsed, Marxists are evil, and a market-based economy is always and everywhere a good thing.

The Osawatomie Speech
And yet, and yet. It is entirely possible that growing inequality is the defining issue of our time. President Obama addressed the subject in December 2011 (shortly after the recession that turned me into a retiree) in a speech he gave in Osawatomie, Kansas: "Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments -- wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't -- and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up."

That bit comes fairly early in the speech.  Later on, he says, "Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1 percent has gone up by more than 250 percent to $1.2 million per year. I'm not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I'm saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1 percent, the average income is now $27 million per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6 percent."

Then Came Mr. Piketty
Enter Thomas Piketty, stage left. He'd been speaking from the wings for years, but the 2014 publication of his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century placed him center stage in the English-speaking world.

Piketty is not a Marxist, but he is French (the book was published in French in 2013). So the people who changed the name of French fries to "freedom fries" will probably mistrust him anyway. That's their loss. Mr. Piketty has done us all a great service, and attention should be paid.

That said, the book is 600 pages long, and it's about economics, so even though it's very well written, relatively few people are likely to read it (although quite a few have bought it, with translations appearing in 37 languages). So I decided, once again, to do a book report. I need to warn you, you've just started reading a long story. But it's a lot shorter than the book.

Organizing the Data
Mr. Piketty is less the heir of Marx than he is the heir of Kuznets. It's about the data. Simon Kuznets was the great pioneer in this regard. Working at the National Bureau of Economic Research, he was the first to develop a system of national accounts for the United States. This is an accounting system based on a wide variety of sources that eventually rolls up into our familiar Gross National Product (and its somewhat smaller sibling, Gross Domestic Product). Simon Kuznets was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1971.

As always, there is a prehistory. Piketty notes that attempts at estimating national wealth date back to the seventeenth century. One of the stalwarts of this prehistory is Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a military engineer who worked for Louis XIV. (Piketty, Capital, pp. 56.) I was a little surprised that Piketty doesn't mention Domesday Book, the inventory of English national wealth prepared after the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. But it's already a 600-page book. You have to leave something out. And the story doesn't really get going until the nineteenth century, when, as Piketty puts it, "estimates of national wealth proliferated." By World War I, "being an economist meant first and foremost being able to estimate the national capital of one's country; this was almost a rite of initiation." (Piketty, pp. 56-57.)

By the 1930's, improvements in the primary statistical sources allowed Kuznets and others to take the game to a new level. One of the monuments of this period was Kuznets's 1953 Shares of Upper Income Groups in Income and Savings. (Pp. 11, 57.)

Early in his career Piketty noticed "that there had been no significant effort to collect historical data on the dynamics of inequality since Kuznets," so he "set out to collect the missing data." As he puts it, "I began this work by collecting sources and establishing historical time series pertaining to the distribution of income and wealth." (Pp. 31- 33.) Piketty readily acknowledges his debt to Kuznets, saying, "To begin with income: in large part, my work has simply broadened the spatial and temporal limits of Kuznets's innovative and pioneering work on the evolution of income inequality in the United States between 1913 and 1948." (P. 16.)

Piketty began by applying Kuznets's approach to France, and then with colleagues to a large number of other countries. In addition, Piketty wanted to look back as far as he could. Of particular interest in this regard was the French estate tax established in 1791, during the time of the French Revolution. The results of all this work may be seen online in the World Top Incomes Database. (Pp. 17-18, 337.) The WTID, as it is known, was presented to the public for the first time in January 2011, and it continues to grow as new data series are added.

So Piketty has the data. In addition, his analysis controls the discourse on inequality that is currently rumbling around the globe. If you don't believe me on that second point, just watch the 2016 presidential election as it turns more and more to the subject of inequality. Grover Norquist ("Mr. No New Taxes") may well have lost his grip on our political class.

Attacks on Piketty
The appearance of Piketty's book received intelligent coverage in, among other places, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. The book was also attacked.

With a book like this, there are a number of standard avenues of attack. You can attack the data. Or you can attempt to shift the discourse by artful misdirection.

Shortly after Capital appeared, Chris Giles, the economics editor of London's Financial Times, wrote that Piketty had made a bucket-load of errors and that the data, properly considered, do not support a conclusion that the rich have been getting dramatically richer of late. To which Paul Krugman in the New York Times said, "Here we go again."

Turns out that Giles apparently forgot to read the footnotes, and also overlooked the vast amount of supporting and explanatory material that was available online in the Technical Appendix. "In short," writes Krugman. "this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we've become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked."

A little later, the World Economic Forum said Piketty had his eye on the wrong ball. The WEF is the group that meets in Davos, Switzerland, every year. It's a hot ticket if you're really rich. Not surprisingly WEF official Richard Samans found Piketty's view "way too narrow" and advocated "improving the investment climate and entrepreneurial climate." Gotta make those job creators happy so Archie Bunker's "tinkle-down" theory will finally work. The peons need only be patient. Let's call this inartful misdirection.

And then a British journal, the Economist, tried a third trick, which is usually saved for last because it essentially involves running up a white flag. On July 30, 2015, the Economist declared that it didn't matter whether Piketty was right, because it wouldn't change anything. This is called trivializing the outcome.

I'm rather fond of this story because it lays out a path to victory for Piketty's main policy proposal -- a tax on wealth. As the article puts it, "Suppose America's Congress were controlled by business-friendly Republicans keen to streamline the tax system and cut rates. And the White House were occupied by a Democrat open to tax reform but prepared to veto any bill without a strong progressive component. Congressional haggling could produce a wealth tax as the linchpin of a deal."

However, the article goes on, "A wealth tax that emerges in the absence of tectonic political change will not alter economic growth or the overall tax burden on the wealthy by very much." So relax, rich people. As long as you control the political system, you can prevent a return to the greater equality that characterized the twentieth century in so many countries. Keep crushing the unions and blocking access to the ballot box, and your lives will go on just fine.

The outcome of Mr. Piketty's reform will be trivial. Capitalism will continue to rule democracy.

I personally think that Piketty's ideas are more powerful than that, but there's no denying the ability of politics to stymie good economic ideas and promote bad ones (for instance, the Laffer Curve).

The Emperor's New Clothes: The Minimum Wage
One of the great values of Piketty's book are the moments when, as in Hans Christian Andersen's story, the emperor is leading a parade through town with no clothes on -- and these moments just flow seamlessly from the data. A good example is the minimum wage. Piketty tells the story of the minimum wage in two countries: France and the United States.

France first got the minimum wage in 1950, but for nearly two decades it stagnated, falling "farther and farther behind the average wage." (P. 289.) Then along came the upheaval of May 1968, a time of massive protests that started with university students and spread out from there.

(1968 was a watershed year in a number of countries around the world, including the United States. There's a very good book on it all: Mark Kurlansky's 1968: The Year that Rocked the World [2004]. The France chapter begins on page 209.)

(Okay, I can't resist. One of the lead protesters was Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Known as Dany the Red, he once said, "Je suis Marxiste tendance Groucho," or roughly, "I am a Marxist of the Groucho persuasion.")

At any rate, a main result of the events of 1968 in France was that the minimum wage, long stagnant, took off like a rocket. Between 1968 and 1983 it increased by more than 130 percent. (P. 289.)

Around 1980, the winds of politics changed. Margaret Thatcher became prime minister of Great Britain in 1979; Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in 1980; and shortly thereafter Gordon Gekko declared that "Greed is good." As opposed to being one of the seven deadly sins.

In France, the Socialists had returned to power in 1981, but the winds were too strong for them, and in 1982-1983 the government took a "turn toward austerity." Says Piketty, "The break was as sharp as that of 1968, but in the other direction." The minimum wage did continue to increase, but at a relatively low rate. (Pp. 289-290, 308-309.)

If you graph all this, the curve is flat until 1968, sharply up until the early 1980s, and then moderately up until the present.

Meanwhile, what's going on in the United States? The minimum wage got started in the 1930's and increased steadily until its peak in 1969, Richard Nixon's first year as president. Since then it has not kept up with inflation, although there have been occasional upward bumps. (P. 309.)

As Piketty puts it, "The United States used the minimum wage to increase lower-end wages in the 1950s and 1960s but abandoned this tool in the 1970s. In France, it was exactly the opposite: the minimum wage was frozen in the 1950s and 1960s but was used much more often in the 1970s. Figure 9.1 illustrates this striking contrast." (P. 310.)

Figure 9.1 is on page 309 of the book, but it is also in the online Technical Appendix; you can look at it by clicking here.

So what should we make of all this? Here's Piketty's rather professorial take: "To an even greater extent than other markets, the labor market is not a mathematical abstraction whose workings are entirely determined by natural and immutable mechanisms .... labor market regulations depend on each society's perceptions and norms of social justice and are intimately related to each country's social, political, and cultural history." (Pp. 308, 310.)

I am now going to, very freely, translate Mr. Piketty: Within certain broad limits, the minimum wage is not about economics; it is about politics. Fight for $15!

The Other End of the Pay Scale: Supermanagers and Their Pay
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pay scale, we have another graph that destroys an entire imperial wardrobe of false justification, prevarication, and artful misdirection. Figure 9.8 compares income for the top 10 percent in the United States versus Europe (in this case Great Britain, Sweden, France, and Germany). It's on page 324 of the book; it's also in the Technical Appendix: click here.

The chart goes back to 1900, but for our purposes the story begins around 1980, when salaries for what Piketty calls supermanagers started to skyrocket in the United States (pp. 291, 294). Top salaries also increased in Europe, but to a much lesser degree.

Piketty says "what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality of income from labor (probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large." (P. 265.)

He adds, "The increase was largely the result of an unprecedented increase in wage inequality and in particular the emergence of extremely high remunerations at the summit of the wage hierarchy, particularly among top managers of large firms." (P. 298.)

And he observes, "It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups." (P. 297.)

Piketty attributes this phenomenon to the dramatic reduction of top income tax rates during the Reagan Revolution (p. 509). In his view, executives then felt it was worthwhile to push for higher salaries (p. 510). Piketty and several colleagues have studied this issue in depth. "Our findings suggest that skyrocketing executive pay is fairly well explained by the bargaining model (lower marginal tax rates encourage executives to negotiate harder for higher pay) and does not have much to do with a hypothetical increase in managerial productivity." (Pp. 511-512.)

The biggest gains are crowded up at the very top level -- not the top 10 percent, not the top 1 percent, but the top 0.1 percent (pp. 296,  314).

The media direct a very substantial part of their attention on these issues to actors and athletes. They make up less than 5 percent of this high-income group -- the top 0.1 percent of the income hierarchy (p. 302). Artful misdirection, yet again.

Another dodge is to point to people in finance -- hedge fund managers, investment bankers. But the vast majority of these high earners are not in finance. They're out there at places like General Motors, just as American as apple pie. (Pp. 302-303.)

So how do you make it into the circle of the blessed? Well, as Piketty suggests above, it's not about performance. American managers as a group haven't grown their country any faster than the Europeans, who aren't seeing anywhere near the Americans' bushels of kale.  "Concretely," says Piketty, "the crucial fact is that the rate of per capita GDP growth has been almost exactly the same in all the rich countries since 1980." (P. 510.)

And when you take it to the firm level, the results are just as paradoxical. Senior managers seem to be paid largely for events beyond their control -- the general growth of the economy, the price of raw materials -- rather than things that are at least theoretically under their control. Researchers have referred to this phenomenon as "pay for luck." (Pp. 334-335.)

Piketty's conclusion: "It may be excessive to accuse senior executives of having their 'hands in the till', but the metaphor is probably more apt than Adam Smith's metaphor of the market's 'invisible hand'. In practice, the invisible hand does not exist, any more than 'pure and perfect' competition does, and the market is always embodied in specific institutions such as corporate hierarchies and compensation committees." (P. 332.)

All this puts me in mind of George Washington Plunkitt, the great Tammany Hall philosopher and practitioner of "honest graft" so many years ago. What did he say? "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Piketty's Main Idea
Most of the discussion about Mr. Piketty's book has appropriately focused on his main idea, which is that wealth tends to flow to the top and stay there. As Piketty puts it on page 1 of his book, "When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based."

This sentence requires some unpacking. Piketty unpacks for 600 pages. I will unpack more briefly.

The fundamental issue has to do with the rate of return on investments -- real estate, the stock market, you name it -- and the rate of growth of the overall economy. When the rate of return on investments is higher than growth of the economy, something strange happens.

Piketty's description of the mechanism that takes hold put me in mind of the old story "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." The original here is actually a poem by Goethe, but Americans probably know it best as a segment of Walt Disney's Fantasia, starring Mickey Mouse. It involves a sorcerer's apprentice (Mickey), his boss the sorcerer, and a broom. The boss decides to go out for a while, and he tells Mickey to clean up while he's gone. Mickey, who is learning magic, decides to try out a labor-saving spell on the broom, which comes to life and starts fetching water from the well and dumping it on the floor. The only problem is the broom won't stop. Mickey cuts the broom in two with an axe, but this just causes the broom to start replicating itself, and things quickly spin out of control -- until the sorcerer returns and cancels the spell.

Piketty uses a mathematical expression, r > g, to describe the situation where return on investments (r) is greater than economic growth (g). His data indicate that r has been greater than g at all times -- except in the twentieth century, when two world wars and related events caused a reversal.

One last chart: Figure  10.11, page 357. To see it in the Technical Appendix, click here.

The world I grew up in was after World War II, when growth was rapid and the rewards were being spread fairly widely. It is difficult for me, on an emotional level, to accept that the world of my childhood was an anomaly. And yet this is where Piketty's data lead us.

This is a complicated topic. Here's the best summary of Piketty's argument that I have run across. It's from the New York Times:

"The book's argument in a nutshell is this: Capitalism has a natural drift toward high inequality, as assets like real estate and stocks disproportionately held by the wealthy (capital) rise faster than the economy (growth). This process was temporarily reversed by the world wars of the first half of the 20th century, but now inequality in the United States and Europe is rising back toward pre-World War I levels. This is a bad thing, which should be fought through radical policy measures like a global tax on wealth."

About that Wealth Tax
I've mentioned Piketty's proposal for a wealth tax several times. It is his response to the r > g conundrum -- think of it as the sorcerer who shows up at the end of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In Piketty's opinion, the spell can be broken.

But probably not by an income tax. The wealthy have had about a century to tame the income tax, and it seems they've been quite successful.

Take the case of Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L'Oreal fortune and the richest person in France. Notes Piketty, "According to information published in the press and revealed by Bettencourt herself, her declared income was never more than 5 million a year, a little more than one ten-thousandth of her wealth (which is currently more than 30 billion euros)." Obviously those 30 billion euros were generating a lot more than 5 million a year, but Bettencourt apparently managed to get along on the 5 mill, and presumably the rest was reinvested. Piketty calculates that the income declared for tax purposes was "less than a hundredth of the taxpayer's economic income." (P. 525.)

I have trouble imagining a fortune this large, and Piketty says I'm not alone. "For millions of people, 'wealth' amounts to little more than a few weeks' wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a cat, and a few pieces of furniture." For these people, "the very notions of wealth and capital are relatively abstract." (P. 259.)

I sometimes wonder if Bettencourt herself might find the notion of 30 billion euros somewhat abstract. Anyway, it seems likely that she would find a tax on the 30 billion, at the rates that Piketty is proposing, to be relatively painless. (I'm sure her lawyers would disagree.)

Piketty emphasizes that his primary goal in proposing this tax is not to raise money, but rather to regulate the otherwise exponential growth of large fortunes (p. 518). As he puts it, "beyond a certain threshold, capital tends to reproduce itself and accumulates exponentially." (P. 395.)

Left to itself, the r > g syndrome leads to a society that is, as Piketty says of France before World War I, "prodigiously and persistently inegalitarian." (P. 370.)

Over the last thirty years or so, I think we've come to see what such a world might look like in America. It's not the basically middle-class world that I grew up in. Frankly, it strikes me as something of a dystopia.

The French fought their revolution for liberty, equality, and fraternity. We fought ours because we thought all men were created equal. If we're serious about holding on to our democracy, we need to take a harder look at the forces that are pressing us into greater and greater inequality, and we need to do something that points us back to our original vision.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Forging Community -- One Flat Tire at a Time

Recently I've become a fan of the Indego bike-share program in Philly. I'm not an intensive user, but I am a member, and I enjoy occasionally riding to the office instead of walking, or riding over to the Reading Terminal Market on a warm day, when less effort and more breeze seem quite attractive.

Quicker transit time, a different view of the street -- and I might add drivers who seem much calmer than they were even a year ago.

The other morning I discovered another benefit, which probably shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. I showed up at the bike stand at 17th and Pine a bit late -- after 8:30. Usually by that point there are no bikes left.  But this day there was one. I rushed to grab it, even though there was nobody else around. But I couldn't get it out of the stanchion. The light wouldn't go green. Only the odd little orange amoeba was willing to light.

Just as I was giving up and getting ready to walk to work, another bicyclist showed up and parked his bike in the stand. I walked over and thanked him for saving my morning ride, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. He went on his way, I took his bike out of its stanchion, and as I was leaving, I noticed that the other bike -- the one I couldn't get out of its stanchion -- had a flat tire.

How civil of Indego to refuse to let me ride a bike with a flat tire. But the real civility was the interaction with the other bike rider, the one whose bike I took and rode to work. How often have you had a pleasant, if inconsequential, conversation with a total stranger on the street in a big city? I'm pretty sure it's never happened to me when I was driving. And, while walking, the protocol is generally a smile and a nod, and perhaps a good morning. People are wary. After all, it's the big city.

Dogs are another safe way through the wariness, and I've praised a lot of dogs over the years. But I think the bikes are a nice addition.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Supreme Court and Parking

Once upon a time, in the land of Arlington, in Virginia, there was a residential neighborhood called Aurora Highlands. This little suburban community had the misfortune to develop a new neighbor, an office complex called Crystal City. Many of the workers in Crystal City drove to their jobs, and they soon noticed that there were many free, vacant parking spaces in Aurora Highlands. So they did what any red-blooded American motorist would do. They parked in the vacant spaces. For free.

Apparently the good citizens of Aurora Highlands were aghast. (The emotional state of common folk was not so minutely recorded in the days before the Internet as it is now.) We do know that the elders of the land felt their constituents' pain, and pretty soon the county had something called Zoning Ordinance 29D (on May 18, 1974, to be exact).

This new law may well have caused great joy in the Highlands of Aurora, for it told the Outsiders of Crystal City to stay Outside. It did this by authorizing the County Manager (it would be so much better if I could call him the High Sheriff) to regulate parking if he found the curbs to be crowded.

Specifically he was commanded to search out places in Arlington County where peak occupancy was 75 percent or higher. (On a lot of blocks in Philly, 75 percent would describe minimum occupancy better than maximum occupancy.)

He soon found such a spot in Aurora Highlands. The section selected included 81 buildings that contained a total of 101 residences. All but two of the single-family dwellings had off-street parking facilities. The zone also contained 192 curbside parking spaces along three streets. Sounds like a very nice little garden city to me.

So how did the County Manager protect this utopian village from the evil motorists of Crystal City? Personally, I was looking for a moat, and a drawbridge -- and maybe even a gate and a portcullis. And maybe earthworks behind the moat.  After all, when you dig a moat you have to throw the dirt somewhere.

But no. The Quest for Exclusion of Outsiders led to parking stickers in the windows of the residents' cars. Less expensive and, frankly, just as effective. (I have no idea if the permits were stickers in windows, or placards on dashboards, or some other device. Research in mouldy newspaper archives would likely shed light on this subject.)

Needless to say, the motorists of Crystal City were enraged. "Stickers? We don't need no stinkin' stickers!" Lacking ramparts to storm, they resorted to the American pastime of a lawsuit, alleging denial of due process of law and equal protection of the laws. (Very roughly -- Nobody asked me! And, If he can have it, so can I!)

Arlington v. Richards (1977)
In 1975 the trial court agreed with the good motorists of Crystal City. But the elders of Arlington were not prepared to leave matters there. No, they were made of sterner stuff, and they appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which in January 1977 handed them the modern equivalent of a drawing and quartering.

According to the Va. Supremes, ownership of property abutting a public street "gives the owner no right to use the street superior to that enjoyed by the public at large." And that was one of their kinder comments.

Having had their heads and various other body parts handed to them, the elders of Arlington trudged across the bridge to Washington, D.C., and laid their case at the feet of the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

In this, their final forum, their last chance, they triumphed. They cut the net off the basket, and they took the goal posts home.

In a decision dated October 11, 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court took note of the Va. Supreme Court's holding "that the ordinance on its face offends the equal protection guarantee of the 14th Amendment." And then it said, "We disagree."

SCOTUS then added that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires only that distinctions between residents and nonresidents "rationally promote the regulation's objectives."

The court's opinion was quite succinct.  That's because the Va. Supremes failed to deal adequately with fifty years of zoning law, and specifically the U.S. Supreme Court's 1926 decision in Euclid v. Ambler.

The elders of Arlington had tried to get the Va. Supremes interested in the concept of zoning law, but they failed.

As the Virginia Supreme Court put it, "Whatever authority local governments may derive from the zoning statutes to protect the distinctive characteristics of residential neighborhoods, such authority does not include the power to adopt ordinances which grant residents a parking monopoly in the public streets of their neighborhood."

Well, actually, it does. Let us turn now to the foundational document for zoning in the United States, Euclid v. Ambler

Euclid v. Ambler (1926)
The Village of Euclid, Ohio, was a small suburban town near Cleveland. The Ambler Realty Co. owned 68 acres of land in Euclid. On November 13, 1922, the village council adopted a zoning ordinance dividing the village's land into districts that varied in, among other things, their allowable uses. Most of Ambler's land was available for industrial uses, but not all.

Ambler Realty was not happy with this intrusion on its unilateral right to do whatever it damn well pleased with its property, and so it sued, alleging denial of due process and equal protection of the law (that pesky 14th Amendment again).

For decades the Supreme Court had been balancing the requirements of the 14th Amendment (adopted in 1868) against what is called the "police power," which allows government to regulate activity to ensure the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare. 

Mr. Justice Sutherland delivered the opinion of the court. He was a very conservative justice. According to Samuel R. Olken, "At first, Sutherland thought the law was unconstitutional, but after some persuasion by Justice Stone and others, Sutherland requested reargument of the the case and eventually decided to sustain the ordinance as a reasonable exercise of local police powers." ("Justice George Sutherland and Economic Liberty," William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Winter 1997, p. 70, fn. 329.) 

If the Va. Supremes had spent an appropriate amount of time with Euclid they'd have known that the Arlington parking regulations could only be declared unconstitutional if they were shown to be, as Justice Sutherland put it, "clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare."

They would have known that, in his decision, Justice Sutherland relied on the common law of nuisances. "He reasoned that if the common law permitted the government to abate a nuisance in order to prevent one from using his private property to the detriment of another, then a municipality also should be able to regulate private land use that harmed the public at large." (Olken, p. 79.)

And the Justice deferred to the legislature, writing, "If the validity of the legislative classification for zoning purposes be fairly debatable, the legislative judgment must be allowed to control."

Sutherland, who grew up in Utah before it was a state, saw clearly that the world was becoming more crowded and that (here he quotes the Supreme Court of Illinois) there was a need "to limit individual activities to a greater extent than formerly."

For Sutherland, the heart of the case was the creation and maintenance of residential districts. And his goal, as Olken (p. 70) puts it, was to protect "the town's interest in preserving the quiet use and enjoyment of residential property."

Having read Justice Sutherland's opinion in Euclid, I have no doubt how he would have decided Arlington.

Where Do We Go From Here?
I've spent the last year or so thinking about and trying the reimagine Philadelphia's public spaces. (Once There Was a Prison, Uncorking the Bottleneck, Alleys, Parking: Storage v. Access, Parking Permits and Musical Chairs, Measuring the Health of a Parking System.)

We don't always use our public spaces well, and frankly I don't think we have a good excuse for that. Let's just take parking as an example.

- We have technology today that didn't exist ten years ago, let alone back in 1977, when the Supreme Court decided Arlington.

- We have Professor Donald Shoup, the Merlin of Parkery, and his simple idea: Let's shift parking away from the old administrative system of permits and fees and fines, and go to a market economy. All May Park, All Must Pay.

- Finally, the Supreme Court has told us that we have wide latitude when it comes to parking management.

There's an old saying in marketing:  You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle. I think, when it comes to parking, the sizzle is the technology -- for instance, the app that lets you re-up on your parking space over your iPhone.

If we don't use this opening to go to variable meter pricing based on demand, we have not lived up  to the opportunity.

Where does the parking permit zone fit in this brave new world? We can keep it if we want to. Even the Va. Supremes said so. The Crystal City motorists had suggested "that the objectives of the ordinance could be better achieved by other parking regulations applied to motorists as a single class." The elders of Arlington responded that they were "not required to select the optimum solution to a public problem." And the Va. Supremes wiggled uncomfortably, but basically sided with the elders of Arlington on this point.  They just felt the elders were trumped by the 14th Amendment.

But if we can do whatever we want, why not do the optimum solution?

Cities have always had an uneasy balance of inclusion and exclusion. Read Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, and you'll have a good idea what city walls were for. On the other hand, cities exist as a place where people can come together face to face and learn things from people who aren't like them. That is the glory of a city.

The doctrine of exclusion that is implicit in the residential parking permit zone troubles me. We have the tools to construct an inclusive system. So why not? 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Parking Permits and Musical Chairs

A few years ago, the Beacon Hill neighborhood in Boston set what I hope is a record. Beacon Hill is a prosperous residential neighborhood near the central business district. It's quite compact; there are only 983 on-street parking spaces. Residents with parking permits had the exclusive use of these spaces. The city issued the permits for free.

So how many of these parking permits were there? 3,933, or four for every spot.

I have this story from Professor Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking, 2011 edition, p. 516 and footnotes 31 and 32 on p. 552). After I read it, I started to wonder about the number of active parking permits in my neighborhood in Philadelphia, which is covered by residential parking permit Zone 1.

My neighborhood is essentially the southwest quadrant of William Penn's original plan for the city, centered on Rittenhouse Square. Sometimes it's called Greater Rittenhouse. I've taken to calling it CCRAville, after the Center City Residents' Association, the local civic group.

CCRAville extends south to South Street, but Zone 1 keeps going all the way down to Washington Avenue. The South of South Neighborhood Association looks after the area from South Street to Washington Avenue, which I call SOSNAland.

Both of these groups have recently performed parking inventories. CCRAville found 1,584 Zone 1 spots. SOSNAland, which is larger,  found 2,103. So there are 3,687 Zone 1 parking spaces in Zone 1.

And how many parking permits are currently in effect? Take a guess. Go ahead. Get a piece of paper and write your number down.

Okay. I filled out yet another Right to Know request and sent it off to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. A few days later they sent me a note saying they needed a little more time, and a few days after that they sent me the numbers.

As I've said before, I've found my recent interactions with the PPA to be productive and even pleasant. (There was that parking ticket six years ago.)

There are 6,957 Zone 1 parking permits currently active -- roughly two permits for every available Zone 1 spot.

How does that compare to your guess? Were you higher, or lower? Perhaps I influenced you with my story about Beacon Hill. Or maybe you couldn't believe a government agency would invite 12 people to play musical chairs when there were only six chairs.

Where Are the Extra Cars Parked?
One interesting question is where all those extra sticker owners are parking. I think the Beacon Hill story can give us some guidance here. Professor Shoup reports that in 2004 the price of a condominium parking space on Beacon Hill was as high as $167,500 (plus a monthly condo fee and annual property tax). Professor Shoup calculates the annual cost of one of these spots as $11,000. People are willing to pay a lot to be sure of a space.

By contrast, here in Philly in 2015 there is a garage a block from my house that charges $250 a month, or $3,000 a year. I've always thought that was kind of expensive, but it depends on what you compare it to -- $11,000 in Boston, or $35 at the curb in Philadelphia.

At any rate, Mike Axler and I have shown that at least 87 percent of households in CCRAville are not parking on the street in their neighborhood.

Why would you buy a sticker and never use it? The answer is that you can use it occasionally.  Every once in a while there's an open spot on my block. If I know I'm going out again in an hour, I may park at the curb instead of putting the car away in the garage. It doesn't happen very often. But it's only $35.

Splitting Zone 1
There's a proposal to split Zone 1 at South Street, so SOSNAland and CCRAville would each have their own parking zones. SOSNAland seems to feel that some of its congestion issues come from CCRAvillers parking south of South. I'm inclined to agree that this happens, but I have no way to size the phenomenon.  Personally I'm in favor of the proposal because I think it would make it easier to raise the price of a parking sticker in CCRAville. (There's no particular reason why all the zones in the city should have the same permit price, and yet they do.)

As part of my request to PPA, I asked for a breakout of the number of Zone 1 permits held by residents living in each of the two proposed zones. I combined those numbers with the number of spots in each area to produce these two tables.

Total on-street spots - 3,161
Zone 1 spots - 1,584
Zone 1 permits - 3,863

Total on-street spots - 4,884
Zone 1 spots - 2,103
Zone 1 permits - 3,121

As you can see, CCRAville has 2,000 more stickers than Zone 1 spots, and it seems likely that some of them are parking south of South, although I think the bulk of them are parking off-street.

On the other hand SOSNAland, on its own, has 1,000 more stickers than Zone 1 spots. So splitting Zone 1 into two pieces will not be a panacea. There still won't be enough Zone 1 parking spaces for all the permit holders.

But wait -- SOSNAland is blessed with quite a few parking spaces that are not Zone 1 -- or at least not yet. There are 2,781 of these spots. Some of them are two-hour spots, which means they're not suitable for long-term storage, although they're a good place to park overnight. Many of the spots, though, are uncontrolled -- anybody can park for as long as he or she wants.

The uncontrolled blocks are often completely filled with parked cars. Who owns them? Once again, residents tend to point to outsiders -- for instance, Penn and Drexel students who bring their cars to school and store them for extended periods. I expect this happens, but again I have no way to size the phenomenon.

What if the vast majority of people parking in these uncontrolled spots are actually residents of SOSNAland -- Zone 1 permit holders who can't find a Zone 1 spot, and other residents who choose not to buy a Zone 1 permit?

It would be good to know who's parking there. If you convert these blocks to Zone 1 status, and the people currently parking there either have Zone 1 permits or can easily buy one, then you have gone to a considerable effort and made precisely no progress in controlling parking congestion.

This brings us to an important lesson: Parking permit zones are good at excluding outsiders. When the problem is too many insiders, things get complicated.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Measuring the Health of a Parking System

Here's an odd little fact: For every dollar of parking revenue it collects from curbside meters, the Philadelphia Parking Authority collects more than two dollars in parking fines. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the ratio is reversed. At the end of the SFpark demonstration project in 2013, the pilot areas were collecting four dollars in meter revenue for every dollar of parking fines.

The SFpark Numbers
I ran across the San Francisco numbers on the SFpark website, in a document called SFpark Pilot Project Evaluation. The meter revenue -- $242 per meter per month -- is on page 122 (pdf page 62). The citation revenue -- $61 per meter per month -- is on page 124 (pdf page 63).

During the course of the demonstration project, citation revenue declined and meter revenue increased in the pilot areas. Interestingly, the average price of an hour at a meter declined. SFpark employs variable pricing, also called demand pricing, where the price at the meter varies during the course of the day and the overall price schedule is adjusted at intervals, all with the goal of assuring a target occupancy rate of 60-80 percent. (For more on SFpark, see Parking in San Francisco.)

The SFpark numbers are not exactly comparable to the Philadelphia numbers I discuss below. The ticket revenue in the SFpark study is for meter-related offenses only -- such as not paying the meter or overstaying the meter time limit. Other parking offenses, such as blocking a driveway, are not included. Also the SFpark numbers are only for the areas of the city included in the study. The Philadelphia numbers are for the whole city.

Still, the SFpark data provide a portrait of a well-run parking system that is centered on meter revenue rather than ticket revenue.

About the Philadelphia Numbers
The 2014 annual report of the Philadelphia Parking Authority provides an aggregate number for on-street parking revenue (page 31) and also lists the sources of those funds -- ticket revenue, meter revenue, towing, booting etc. (page iv). The annual report does not, however, provide the revenue numbers for those individual categories.

So I wound up filing a Right-to-Know request, and a few days later I received the information in the mail. I reproduce it below.

As an aside, my interactions with the PPA over the last few months have been productive and, dare I say it, pleasant.

2014 On-Street Parking Revenues in Philadelphia

Tickets - $76,510,245

Meters - $34,633,109

Smart Card - $485,055

Towing - $3,665,909

Storage - $558,432

Booting - $1,818,305

RPP - $1,059,648

Contractor - $1,062,525

Loading Zone - $468,705

Auction - $115,195

Auction Proc Fee - $62,460

Credit Card Proc Fees-Auction - $42,520

Credit Card Convenience Fees - $1,290,722

Proc Fee Registration/Suspend - $17,059

Ticketing Refund - ($324,945)

Miscellaneous - $66,175

Total - $121,531,119

A Few Notes of Explanation
RPP stands for residential parking permit ($35/year). Contractor, I believe, is revenue from contractor parking permits ($150/year).

The Loading Zone category refers to a quaint Philadelphia custom.  If you qualify, you can get a loading zone at the curb in front of your business. For each parking space removed there's an installation fee of up to $500, and an annual permit fee of up to $150. Loading zones limit parking to 20 or 30 minutes, and they are available to anyone who wants to park there. The business owner does not control parking in the zones.

The residential permit, the contractor permit, and the loading zone permit are all dramatically underpriced. A standard $2.50 parking spot in Center City can generate revenue up to $8,000 per year.

Searching for a Set of Vital Signs
When you go to the doctor's office, the second thing you do (after you fill out the paperwork) is get your vital signs taken. You know -- temperature, pulse, respiration rate, blood pressure. I've been wondering for a while what a set of vital signs for a parking system might look like.

Clearly, occupancy rates are important. Are you maintaining peak occupancy rates of 85 percent on the street and in the garages? The answer in Philadelphia is no, but it's not an easy answer to get. The Philadelphia City Planning Commission surveys the large garages in Center City, but it only does so once every five years. As for curbside parking, I don't think anybody has good data, but the situation is so bad, and so obvious, that we can easily limp along without precise information, at least for a while.

SFpark evaluated the demonstration project in a large number of ways. Beyond parking availability it looked at things such as the amount of time drivers had to search for a spot, greenhouse gas emissions, daily vehicle miles traveled, double parking, and the number of accidents.

SFpark also looked, as noted above, at parking citations issued per meter. And that's how I got the idea of comparing ticket revenue to meter revenue.

The great advantage of this ratio as a vital sign for a parking system is that it doesn't require a survey. The data will already exist in the parking authority's financial system. You just need to order up a report.

Would You Rather Pay a Fine or Feed a Meter?
And I think our ratio says a lot about us, here in Philadelphia. There is intense resistance to adding new meters, or raising the rates on existing ones. The inevitable result is overcrowding, which leads directly to a large revenue stream from parking tickets.

Along with the overcrowding and the tickets we also produce a lot of anxiety, frustration, and anger. Parking is a very emotional issue in Philadelphia, and few of those emotions are positive.

We don't need this.  And we don't have to have it.  It's up to us.

(See also Parking:  Storage v. Access, Professor Shoup's Parking Book, The Parking Dream.)

Thursday, April 23, 2015


In Philly we have big streets, like Market Street; we have regular streets, like Walnut Street; and we have little streets, like Addison in, say, the 1700 block. I love this block. It's a narrow street, with no curbside parking allowed. The trees are decorated year-round with strings of white Christmas tree lights. (I'm told they're LEDs, so this exercise may even be reasonably green.)

Sometimes these little streets are called alley-streets, but we also have genuine alleys, which are even narrower and rarely beautiful. I would like to talk to you today about the alleys of Philadelphia.

Matchbox Cars
Let's have a look at the 1700 block of Waverly, which lies directly north of Addison. Here it is, tucked in between Addison and Pine, which is also a very attractive block. Waverly is a mess. The main culprit is the parked cars, which are shoehorned at odd angles into small spaces behind the houses that face Pine and Addison. This little alley looks somewhat like my living room floor years ago, after my son was finished playing with his Matchbox cars, and before we had agreed to clean up.

There are alleys like this all over the neighborhood. We tend not to notice them.  Why walk up 1700 Waverly when you can walk up 1700 Addison?  I only started paying attention when I was working on the inventory of parking spaces for the neighborhood, and I had to walk up these alleys. That was where the parking was.

I understand that the space available is frequently very tight.  But is this an excuse for turning a whole street (alley, excuse me) into a hodgepodge? After all, we're talking about the backyards of some very nice buildings.  I can vouch for the front facades being nice, and the houses I've been inside have generally been quite nice as well. But then we walk out the back door into an inartful jumble of architectural afterthoughts.

It's a shame that some of the city's prettiest streets are backed up by these automotive shantytowns. We might as well put up a sign: Abandon All Standards, Ye Who Enter Here.

So that's the way it is, but I don't think it's necessary. All we really need to do, I think, is pay a little attention.

The same thing goes on up in the Central Business District, only there the main culprit is trash, not cars. It is apparently a Philadelphia custom for merchants and restaurateurs to store their trash in the alley. While I'm sure this delights the city's population of rats, I, as a human, find these alleys quite distasteful.  Have you ever walked down the 1700 block of Moravian? It's far from the worst, but it's bad enough. And there it is, sandwiched between Walnut, our premier shopping street, and Sansom, home to the Sofitel Hotel (they're from France, you know) and also a very nice row of small shops and restaurants.

F for Functional
I've actually developed a grading scale for our alleys. If you're interested, feel free to use it as you walk around town. You don't really have to walk down the alleys. You can just peek from the corner.

Here's the scale:
F - functional. A place to stow cars or stash trash. No redeeming qualities.
D - depressing. Many defects, but not the worst.
C - crummy. A few defects, lacks cohesive vision.
B - borderline. No defects, but doesn't spark joy.
A - actually attractive.  A good, integrated design showing imagination and possibly a bit of whimsy.

I could hand out a lot of Fs at this point, but instead let's look at a block that almost has its act together -- the 2100 block of Cypress.

In fact, I'll give the south side of this street an A. The north side is a C, but it would be a B if two garages with derelict but functional facades were fixed. However, to become an A the homeowners would have to get together. On the south side there is a theme with variations. On the north side there is cacophony.

Perhaps the Center City Residents' Association could branch out from horticulture and have an alley contest.  I think I'd withhold a prize for best alley, at least for a few years, but perhaps award several prizes in the most improved category.

Progress is possible, folks.  It doesn't have to be this way.  Just pull the camera back from the neighborhood where I live and take a wider shot that includes all of Center City.  There are many lovely alleys in places like Washington Square West and Society Hill.  There's even the grand-daddy of them all, Elfreth's Alley, the oldest continuously occupied residential street in the country.

Or we could pull back further and then zoom in on Pasadena, California.  Pasadena's downtown, known as Old Pasadena, is Professor Donald Shoup's shining example of a successful Parking Benefit District.

In his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Professor Shoup recommends Parking Benefit Districts as a crucial key to solving our parking problems and improving our neighborhoods. PBDs receive a portion of the parking revenue generated within the district and spend it on neighborhood improvements.  Generally Professor Shoup recommends fixing the sidewalks, planting trees, and burying utility wires.

In Old Pasadena there was an additional improvement opportunity -- the alleys. Meter money, says the Professor, "helped convert what had been a commercial skid row into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southern California." (Shoup, High Cost, 2011 edition, p. xxviii.)

I've been to Pasadena, and I've seen the alleys.  They're really nice -- "safe, functional walkways with access to shops and restaurants," as the Professor puts it. (Shoup, p. 406.)

Stone Street
If we come back to the East Coast, we can find a particularly attractive alley in Lower Manhattan. It's called Stone Street. According to the indefatigable researchers at Wikipedia, an alliance of property owners, city agencies, and do-gooders "transformed Stone Street from a derelict back alley into one of Downtown's liveliest scenes.  Restored buildings, granite paving, bluestone sidewalks and period street lights set the stage for the half dozen restaurants and cafes, whose outdoor tables are very popular on warm summer nights."

I was there with my brother a while ago.  It was a pleasant morning, and I recall having cappuccino and a croissant on the cobblestones. Lovely.

On Stone Street we also encounter the curious phenomenon of the two-faced restaurant.  It seems almost all the places that open onto Stone Street also open onto one of the neighboring streets. This takes a little getting used to, but my sense is that two entrances on two streets can be good for business.

I know of one two-faced restaurant in Philadelphia.  It's called Bru: Craft and Wurst, and it's located on the 1300 blocks of Chestnut and Drury.  If you stand on Chestnut and look in, you can see McGillin's on the other side of Drury Street.  It's an unusual view.  Ordinarily you can't see through a city block.  Too much stone in the way.

Moravian Again
Which brings us back to the 1700 block of Moravian Street in Philly, nestled quietly between Walnut and Sansom.

Time has not been kind to this block of Moravian, but guess what? Virtually all of the buildings on Moravian seem to extend through, either to Walnut or to Sansom.  On the south side there are a bunch of blocked up doors and windows just waiting to be daylighted, and on the north side a number of the buildings have actual front facades, instead of the familiar turn-your-back-on-the-back-alley treatment.

Does it have the potential of Stone Street?  Probably not.  But this block of Moravian sits in the lap of two of the hottest retail blocks in Philly -- the 1700 block of Walnut, and 18th Street from Walnut to Chestnut.

I look forward to a tranquil cappuccino amidst the happy bustle of commerce.  Probably not soon, but I'm a patient guy.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Parking: Storage v. Access

At the end of March, my friend Mike Axler and I were walking home from the Kenyatta Johnson-Ori Feibush city council debate. It was actually warm.

I suggested that we were done with our field work. Mike noted that we managed to finish just as the weather was starting to warm up.

Since the previous fall, Mike and I had been trudging around the CCRA village (basically the southwest quadrant of William Penn's original plan for Philadelphia). Working as volunteers for the Center City Residents' Association, we were counting parking spaces -- on-street and off-street, in big garages and little.

There was more we could have done, but we were tired, and what was the point of running up the score. We'd already established that at least 87 percent of households do not park a car on the street. We probably could have gotten the number over 90 percent, but what's the point?

I'll go over the numbers in a minute, but let's look first at what they mean.

The Plumber
Some time in the good weather last year, there was a knock on my door about 7:30 in the morning. It was a plumber, and he needed to replace a connection in the street. There was a car parked where he needed to dig, and he was wondering if I knew who it belonged to. Perhaps we could knock on that person's door, and ask him to move his car?

I was speechless. This very nice man thought the cars parked on the street belonged to the people who lived on the street. Maybe in Mayberry, but not in Center City Philadelphia. When I was parking on the street, I was happy if I found a spot within three blocks of my house.

However, the West family was able to help the plumber. My wife glanced at the rear window of the car, noted that there was no Zone 1 parking sticker, and suggested that the car would probably be leaving shortly after 8 a.m. Which is what happened.

Underlying Assumptions
We all know that curbside parking in the CCRA village is very tight. And people are constantly looking for ways to expand the supply of on-street parking. Can't we add one more spot at the head of the line, up by the corner -- thereby decreasing visibility and dramatically increasing the likelihood of pedestrians getting hit by cars in the intersection.

There are a couple of underlying assumptions here. One is that it is possible to increase the supply of curbside parking in a way that would help to meet the demand for spaces. It's not true.

Another is that most people with cars are parking them on the street, and that the street is the primary and natural resource for parking an automobile.

Well, no. As I noted above, at least 87 percent of households in CCRAville do not park a car on the street.  Three-quarters of those who own cars park them off the street.

And half of households don't own cars. Some people seem to have difficulty processing the idea that there are parts of the United States where most people don't own cars. However, in some parts of the CCRA village, the figure is over 60 percent.  (See Philadelphia City Planning Commission, Philadelphia 2035: Central District Plan, Existing Conditions, Issues, and Opportunities, May 2012. The relevant chart is entitled Vehicle Availability.)

It's not Mayberry.  It's not even South Philly.  It's the big city.

The Dream
The Dream will always be there. I should be able to park my car for free at the curb in front of my house whenever I want. Well, no. That's not the way it works here.

But because a lot of people think that wishing makes it so, a lot of things have gone remarkably askew on our streets.

The Zone 1 parking sticker, priced at $35 per year, allows residents to store their cars on the street, which they often do for weeks at a time. This use -- long-term storage -- conflicts directly with another important use of curbside parking -- short-term access.

Short-term access barely exists in the southern parts of CCRAville. However, if you go up to Rittenhouse Square, you can get a glimpse of what it looks like. With the exception of the north side of the square, most spots are loading zones. There's never a problem dropping Aunt Tillie off at the Barclay.  And then you put the car in the garage.

The Numbers
Okay, so how about the numbers? Mike and I have previously reported that we found 1,584 Zone 1 spots in the CCRA village.  (Total on-street spots, including the regular two-hour spots, the Zone 1 storage spots, and spots for diplomats, the handicapped, registered packaged delivery companies -- let's not forget car share and taxi stands -- were 3,161.)

Off-street facilities with less than 30 spots totaled 1,930.

As to garages and lots with a capacity greater than 30, we knew there were well over 11,000 of those, but we didn't know how many were monthly rentals -- as opposed to short-term visitors.

So Mike, who used to do this kind of work for a living, rolled up his sleeves, made phone calls, met with garage managers -- and very often came away with valuable information. Not everybody was willing to talk, but he found 2,894 monthlies in the big garages.

There are more, and we probably could have verified more, but we had what we needed, and we stopped.

Here it is:

2,894 (over 30) + 1,930 (under 30) = 4,824 parking off the street.

Versus 1,584 storing their cars in Zone 1 spots. So 25 percent of cars are being stored on the street:

4,824 (off) + 1,584 (on) = 6,408 (total).

1,584 (on) / 6,408 (total) = .247 or 25 percent.

But half of households don't own a car.  So 12.5 percent -- be generous and make it 13 percent -- of households are parking on the street, and 87 percent are not.

What Do We Do?
The constituency for on-street storage is 13 percent.  But, as I've said before, the constituency for access is 100 percent.  Everybody wants the plumber to be able to visit.

We need change.

So what do we do? Well, here's a start:  On page 696 of his book The High Cost of Free Parking, Professor Donald Shoup recommends destickering some of the spaces on each block in a neighborhood like the CCRA village. The rest of the spots would remain Zone 1 storage spots. The destickered spaces would become standard two-hour access spots during the day, and still be available for overnight parking.  It won't solve the whole problem, but it's a start.

(See previous posts in this blog:  The Parking DreamProfessor Shoup's Parking BookParking in San Francisco.)

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Love Park Underground

I finally found the connection from the Love Park garage to the Suburban Station concourse.  This involved me walking down into the garage and then finding my way back out.  I don't think I'd have ever found it looking from the Suburban Station side.

It's actually not a bad connection, and if adequately supported by wayfaring signage might become a significant competitive advantage for the Love Park garage.  After all, access to the concourse gets you to 18th and JFK, Locust and Broad (and several blocks in each direction on Locust, thanks to the PATCO line), and, I'm told, Market and 8th, all protected from the weather.

The concourse has been looking better lately, although I would be the first to say that it has a way to go. 

Aside from housekeeping, I see two basic problems in the concourse:  It is very difficult to maintain orientation, and the sense of being cut off from the outside world can be oppressive. 

Ed Bacon's proposal, as I understand it, punctured the carapace and gave people underground frequent glimpses of light, air, and the upper world, while showing the upper world glimpses of the activity below and serving to unite the two levels.  Unfortunately, this vision was not realized.  

I think a lot can be done with what we have.  First, current wayfaring signage leaves something to be desired, including a reference to JKF Boulevard.

Second, Bacon's idea of piercing the veil between the two levels -- terrestrial and subterranean -- could be a significant part of the Love Park redesign.  I've never understood why the parking garage is so hidden away, almost as if we were ashamed of it.  The entrances could be portals of light for the underground and also give the park dwellers a sense of the amazingly complex transportation nexus that is flowing beneath their feet.