Since we don’t seem to want to pay for the things we need and use together anymore, cities and other government entities have turned more and more to fees to make us pay. The next step is to outsource the collection of those fees to companies that collect tolls or the (virtual) quarters you put in parking meters. In return, the government gets some immediate money, but it in the long run it is the private sphere that makes the big bucks. In some ways it is a reversion of the days when the government gave tax collection out as concessions—maybe that is next.
Does this matter in terms of how we use our environment? We are about to find out in my native Cincinnati, where the city is selling its parking meters to the local Port Authority, which is in turn contracting the work out to a division of Xerox (no longer a mere document company).
The money, a little under $90 million, is already spent. The city has a budget deficit now, so it bargained future income against current needs (though it will still receive $3 million a year from the Port Authority). The money will help to pay for some major civic improvements, including the building of a new condo tower with a fancy supermarket in its base downtown and a new highway intersection servicing our major medical complex. In that sense, the deal will improve the city’s accessibility and amenities.
On the other hand, the parking will be more expensive—how else is Xerox going to make money?—and, more important, there will be little tweaks such as extending downtown parking hours from 6 to 9 p.m. The latter is especially significant, as, like most downtowns, Cincinnati is turning from a retail into a restaurant and bar hub. It has become more and more of a lively place to spend an evening, but paying to park could curb residents' enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, the city has adopted a form-based code, which I think is a terrible idea, but they have also cut the amount of parking required of downtown construction. I agree with Slate's Matthew Yglesias that this is theoretically great news. But downtown is going to continue to reflect old-fashioned thinking about urban planning. More and more of the amenities we use are spread out all over downtown. To get from downtown to that aforementioned medical complex is still something you can do with a bus, though it is not very convenient—but getting to the Brooks Brothers that moved from downtown to a shopping mall ten miles away is another matter. An affordable grocery store, schools, and countless other things you might want to use if you live downtown are not accessible by foot or public transportation.
We have to find a way to invest in our cities, and not just our downtowns, in ways that make sense for how we live, that make the environment better, that make all of our existing amenities available, and that builds those things that bring people together. Making it more difficult and expensive to park—when those other pieces have yet to fall into place—is a half-measure.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.