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.
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.
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 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.
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 Dream, Professor Shoup's Parking Book, Parking in San Francisco.)