Monday, October 2, 2017

At Least It Makes People Laugh

Philadelphia Parking Policy


Sunset Avenue Pavilion, Asbury Park.

I was at a meeting of the Asbury Park parking committee, and I found myself telling the story of Philly's ill-fated excursion into electric car parking. Briefly, the City offered to rent electric car owners the parking spot in front of their house, as a charging station. The car owner was responsible for installing the charging equipment. Apparently it never occurred to anybody involved in the decision-making that people might see this as an opportunity to get an exclusive parking spot at the curb in front of their home.

(I remember talking with a garage manager a while back, when I was inventorying the parking spaces in Philadelphia's Rittenhouse area, where I live. After we got through the basic information on the garage - capacity, price - we chatted a bit, and he almost immediately volunteered that he wanted to buy an electric car and park it in front of his home in South Philly. His very own spot. Nobody else would be allowed to use it. He was just waiting for the price of electric cars to come down. As George Washington Plunkitt said, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em.")

At any rate, the predictable happened in Philly, with electric car owners regularly calling the City when someone else parked in the spot, and many other residents expressing concern over the loss of a precious curbside spot; some questioned the wisdom of what might be seen as a government sanctioned conversion of public space into private property.

After a few more than 60 of these spots had been installed, mostly in wealthy neighborhoods in the older parts of Center City, where streets are narrow and on-street parking is perennially tight, City Council declared a moratorium on new spots. And now it is mulling its options. Rip out the existing spots? Grandfather them? Is there a more appropriate way to provide for charging stations, perhaps in large off-street garages?

This is what happens when you act without planning.

Anyway, my friendly and attentive audience at the Asbury Park parking committee listened to the story. And then they laughed. That's right. Philadelphia parking policy is a laughing-stock in Asbury Park.

And why not? It is such a shambles.

The Broad Street Median 
Here's another example - this one is pretty famous. In South Philly people park cars in the median strip of Broad Street. They have been doing this basically since there were cars. In addition to being unsafe, this practice is illegal under state law. And frankly the number of spots - about 200 - borders on the trivial.

But it's a grand tradition, and many long-term residents are as in love with median parking on Broad Street as they are with the (well-cleansed) memory of a former mayor named Saint Frank Rizzo.

The result: As did Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, City Hall turns a blind eye on the Broad Street median.

A local civic group brought a lawsuit seeking to have the law enforced, but the suit was dismissed.

It's true that the cars of South Philly don't fit on the streets of South Philly. The solution (or at least part of the solution) is to build some large garages and let those who are willing to pay take their cars off the street. I've previously mentioned that the site of the old Moyamensing prison at 11th and Reed, currently host to an Acme grocery store and a large, suburban-style parking lot, could be redeveloped to include a large, multi-story parking structure. Another site for a garage as part of a redevelopment would be Broad and Washington.

Actually planning for parking, however, is hardly ever a part of Philadelphia's discourse on parking. The City seems to view parking management as a cash register and source of patronage jobs, and most citizens, while bemoaning the terrible state of parking, are strongly resistant to any changes in the status quo.

MeterUP
Next let's have a look at the meterUP mobile parking app, a good idea that collapsed because of elementary errors in planning. Being able to pay for your parking space with your smart phone is a very attractive idea. Pango, the vendor, had former Governor Ed Rendell on its board. And it was the low bidder. The program had a lovely launch - I still have the t-shirt - and had 20,000 active users when it collapsed in April of this year. Cause of death? "Financial problems." Possibly caused by not charging enough money.

We're now hearing that meterUP is coming back with the same name but a new vendor, possibly before the end of the year.

Asbury Park: Things Are Different
Meanwhile, Asbury Park has had a successful parking app for some time. This year we found a new vendor who had, in our opinion, a better mousetrap, and so we switched vendors, with no gap in service, and usage then increased substantially. That's how grown-ups do it.

I got started on the Asbury Park parking committee about two years ago, after my wife and I bought a small condo apartment and started spending quite a bit of time at the beach. At my very first meeting I was pleasantly surprised that people were talking about the importance of access and an 85 percent maximum occupancy rate. It put me in mind of a graduate seminar on parking policy.

And it's not all talk. Asbury Park has dynamic pricing. The system is not as sophisticated as the one in San Francisco, but the price at the meter does go up and down according to location, time of year, day of the week, and time of day. In Philly curbside parking rates vary by geographic location only.

A Small City
Asbury Park is a small city - about 16,000 year-round residents (the ones the Census counts - I'm in Asbury a lot, but the Census counts me in Philly). Its main calling card is its beach and related boardwalk, but it is also known for music and restaurants, among other things. (I can't resist mentioning the Zombie Walk - October 7 this year.)

There are two main areas for paid parking: the blocks along the beachfront, and the commercial corridor along Cookman Avenue, which extends westward from the beach along the southern border of the city and ends near the train station.

A lot of people live on these blocks, so the City has the delicate task of balancing the needs of residents and visitors. Residents of the metered areas can purchase a resident parking permit. There are several permit zones and, as in Philadelphia, your permit is only good in your home zone.

In much of the city, curbside occupancy rates tend to be low, and the parking is free. As parking guru Donald Shoup puts it, if you don't have an access problem, you don't need meters.

The Five-to-Eight Zone
A problem arose near the beachfront. Parking is paid on the first two blocks west of the boardwalk - the 100 and 200 blocks. Residents of the third block in - the 300 block - were experiencing increasing difficulty finding convenient parking spots when they returned home from work or some other trip. The problem was worse in the summer, and especially on weekends. Parking on most 300 blocks was free, and the city was not ready to switch it to paid parking, so we came up with what we called the five-to-eight zone.

On selected blocks, one side of the street was placarded for resident-only parking between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. Residents of the 300 zone who purchased a permit had exclusive access to these spots at night. During the day, anybody could park there.

Why not make the spots exclusive both day and night? Our concern was that many residents would be away during the day, leaving many empty spots very close to the beach, and we wondered what beach visitors would think about not being allowed to park in those spots. On the other hand, we thought it reasonable to ask visitors, if they wished to stay after 5 p.m., perhaps to have dinner or go to a show at the Stone Pony or the Wonder Bar, to move their cars into the paid zone, where there would be spots for them.

The zone has worked pretty well. Resident complaints are down, at least on this topic, and visitors have not made a stink. Plans currently call for the metered area along the beach to expand into more of the 300 zone, at which point the overnight spots may go away. But it's been an interesting experiment.

Why Things Are Different
In Asbury Park, parking management is smart, well-informed, and nimble. Why are things in Philadelphia so different? I think the answer is simple: the mayor and the city council. In Asbury Park the city's leaders understand that access comes first, and then the money will come after (call it doing well by doing good). In Philly, as far as I can tell, everything starts and stops with the money.

How do we get Philly to do better? I don't know.

Sunset Lake, Asbury Park.
See also Parking Permits and Musical ChairsThe Pavements of Asbury Park, The Supreme Court and Parking, What Streets Can Learn From Boardwalks.

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