Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On Leslie Hairston's Parking Populism, or: Panem et Circenses

posted by chicago pop

Alderman Leslie Hairston (seated) together with Goddess of the Hyde Park Herald (standing)
Signal for Chicago Park District Reps to be Thrown to Lions

"Bread and circuses" (or bread and games) (from Latin: panem et circenses) is a metaphor for handouts and petty amusements that politicians use to gain popular support, instead of gaining it through sound public policy. The phrase is invoked not only to criticize politicians, but also to criticize their populations for giving up their civic duty.

In this week's Hyde Park Herald (April 14, 2010), both Alderman Hairston and the paper's op-ed make a handful of arguments against the coming of metered parking at a few lakefront, Park District lots.

Since the arguments are virtually identical, I refer to their advocate as "Herald Hairston". They are all fundamentally misguided, if not wrong. Here's why. Herald Hairston asserts, drawing deeply from a reservoir of bathos put at her disposal by the creative writers of the our local paper, that;

1. Parking at, and enjoyment of the lakefront parks, is and has historically been "free".

2. Metering lakefront parking is regressive because it prevents the disadvantaged (people with cars) from accessing the lakefront

3. No one told us this was going to happen and we are shocked.

Herald Hairston errs on each of the above points in the following ways:

1. Nothing is "free" in the web of obligations known as "society." We all pay for the facilities and upkeep of Chicago's parks through our property taxes. Parking spots in all parks are subsidized by city taxpayers even if they themselves don't use those spots. Those who make intensive use of the lakefront benefit from the largess of those who don't.

Parking at these and other heretofore unmetered locations has therefore never been "free," only subsidized, by the good graces of one's neighbors and the degree of fatness in the city budget at any given time, both of which are independent variables.

We pay: just not at the point of use.

2. People who own cars are not disadvantaged. Vehicles don't come with free gas or car washes. They shouldn't come with free parking. Making parking free amounts to a first-come first-serve policy that does not equitably distribute the resource.

The assumptions hidden within the contrary argument are that a) people have a right to park a car on the lakefront if they own one, and b) charging them a minimal fee for use is more economically burdensome to them than their private decision to own and care for a vehicle.

a) is problematic because the lakefront could not possibly accommodate every city resident with a car, which is what a) assumes, and which is unjust to those who cannot find parking. Those who find parking at the expense of those who cannot are not only freeloading, but also preventing their fellows from enjoying the fruits of their taxes.

b) reinforces a deeply held prejudice that owning cars should be costless, and that public treasure should be dispensed to facilitate everything -- including recreation -- being centered around automobiles.

The argument that a meter policy "will cause inconvenience and expense for people least able to afford it" is sophistry of the purest kind.

3. If you didn't know this was coming, you are ignorant.

If you are ignorant, Herald Hairston did nothing to prepare you.

If Herald Hairston did nothing to prepare you, it was the better to cultivate your outrage at "not knowing" in the run-up to an election year, the better to manipulate your discontent with bread, circuses, and parking.

Grown-ups in the rest of Chicago read about this in the papers and heard about it in the news for months well over a year ago.

To sum up our response to the 3 points above:

1) Parking was never free, so it free parking cannot be taken away. Metered parking is based on the principle that, in addition to base support from property taxes, those who use the facilities most assume some level of responsibility for paying for them.

2) That mythical poor family who can afford to buy and maintain an automobile, but not to enjoy 2 hours worth of parking for $1, needs to sell their vehicle and get a CTA pass.

3) Surprise!


Elizabeth Fama said...

The economist's view: when things are free, they are allocated by who is willing to wait, and all that waiting time is wasted. If we allocate them by money, the park district gets the value rather than burning up time and gas driving around the block.

I take it these public-park meters are not owned by the company that got the City concession, but are owned by the City? In that sense, it's the City's belated entry into the game. If only Mayor Daley had been courageous enough to do this all over the city, rather than selling the concession too cheaply.

Richard Gill said...

Chicago Pop is correct on all counts.

I agree with his point number 1: Where is it written that parking near the lakefront is supposed to be free, or free anywhere else, for that matter? If it's a guaranteed free privilege, then why wasn't the issue raised, say, decades ago when the Monroe Street Garage was constructed as a pay-to-park facility? Taking this to an absurd conclusion, bus and train rides to the lakefront should be free. Uh huh.

I agree with Chicago Pop's point number 2: I have argued at two recent meetings, both attended by a member of Alderman Hairston's staff, that if people can afford to own and operate a car, they can afford to pay for parking that car. I didn't make myself popular with this assertion, but then, I'm not trying to make people think I should get re-elected.

I agree with Chicago Pop's point number 3: Surprise! Actually, surprise maybe if you've only been in town a week or so. Anyone else who didn't know the parking fees were coming has been living in a bubble.

Yes, I know Alderman Hairston voted against the city parking contract, which was signed many months ago, but her posture of rude surprise and indignation is questionable, to say the least.

It would not "surprise" me if the Herald has already written its down-with-fees editorial for the April 21 issue; outlined a front page story, under the banner headline HYDE PARKERS, ALDERMAN PIQUED, BLAST PARKING FEES; and reserved a full page for "angry" letters to the editors.

Oh, pity the hapless officials who must face the mob at tonight's meeting.

chicago pop said...

The lions will eat heartily this eventide.

David Farley said...

Ok, I'll play this game.

"Herald Hairston errs on each of the above points in the following ways..."

1) But the reality is, taking something that was perceived as free and deciding that it isn't free anymore basically sucks. Or, at least that's how people who aren't economists tend to view it. You don't have to be an economist to vote. Historically, people tend to react negatively when the people they've elected pull these stunts.

2) What does this expensive sticker I purchase every year for the privilege of owning a car in the City of Chicago pay for? The price of printing the sticker? People who don't own cars don't have to buy a sticker. That is -so- unfair.

3) No arguments there.

SR said...

I dunno, I think it’s kind of obvious at this point that the city of Chicago currently views car owners as a source of revenue for all kinds of things we’re having trouble paying for; it’s somewhat fictional to say that all these new fees are actually subsidizing the parking spots instead of just plugging general budget shortfalls. Drivers pay plenty for owning cars in the city, including all kinds of crazy tickets for fictional violations etc. A friend of mine has beat over $200 in fines in the past year alone just by showing up in court and demonstrating that the tickets were unjustified; obviously the city is playing the odds that most people won’t bother and it’s free money for them. I don’t know how much the city is raking in from car owners from all the various points of revenue, but I bet it’s a lot more than what they spend on street maintenance. And somehow my property taxes keep going up rather than down now that drivers are allegedly paying more to subsidize the city streets.

On some level, the city budget is just a mess, and car owners are not necessarily wrong to be angry to have the shortfalls made up on their backs. I’m certainly not happy about my property taxes going up and up with no concomitant improvement in services.

With all that said, I don’t necessarily oppose metered parking in high demand areas, but it’s more about distributing a scarce resource fairly and efficiently in my opinion.

chicago pop said...

SR: I think you're confusing metered parking with "other fees" that mostly seem to be parking tickets. Two different things. The revenue from metered parking, which is the subject of this post, is gathered by a private company and does not go to fill the holes in the city budget. (One can argue that it should -- and I agree -- but that's again a separate issue). And even by your own argument, you recognize that parking is not "free".

However, on the main point of principle here -- how best to eqitably distribute parking -- based on your last paragraph, we're agreed.

TA said...

Did anyone attend the meeting last night and is able to give a report? I had to come from work about 10 minutes late and was turned away at the door because it was supposedly too crowded. It would have been nice if the Alderman had planned better but I guess that would be too much to ask.

David Farley said...

Wasn't the City's up-front take on the parking meter deal used for operating costs (meaning, filling holes in the budget, after the Mayor said it wouldn't be)? Doesn't LAZ also now have the power to issue tickets for parking violations? They must be at least keeping a cut of that.

SR said...

The revenue from metered parking, which is the subject of this post, is gathered by a private company and does not go to fill the holes in the city budget. (One can argue that it should -- and I agree -- but that's again a separate issue).

Well, no, but the city sold the metered parking concession to a private company in order to use the revenue from the sale to plug budget holes. Either way, the higher cost of parking to the user is not subsiding the cost of parking to the city directly, or even likely indirectly. Therefore it's not surprising that car owners feel like they're getting soaked to make up for the city's mistakes, because they pretty much are.

chicago pop said...

SR: again, you are confusing things. Parking prices would eventually have risen in the city of Chicago because they were drastically underpriced. The primary objective of The new meter policy instrument should be to manage demand, which it already does where it has been put into place. It is much more modest in places than it
could be. But the subsidies for parking originate elsewhere, which means it was never free. You remarks would suggest that the parking deal should have lowered the cost of public parking when that was never the intention.

TA: none of the HPP bloggers made it to the meeting. If any readers would like to post a report, let me know.

David F: you're good with web searches -- can you find out about ticketing power/revenue sharing with the City, etc?

SR said...

You remarks would suggest that the parking deal should have lowered the cost of public parking when that was never the intention.

I didn't think I was implying that at all. (What I actually think the parking meter deal should have done was raise a heck of a lot more money for city than it did, considering how much those dudes are charging for parking now.)

Maybe the reason we're talking past each other here is that, now that I go back and look, you never explicitly made the argument that charging for parking is how the city pays for parking. Instead you were saying parking isn't free, and that owning and using a car in the city ought to cost something. I think I assumed you were making the connection that metered parking was fair because it caused car owners to pay for their parking (and I was arguing that the connection doesn't really exist); but maybe you weren't.

chicago pop said...

Also, re: "getting soaked", the acknowledged criticism of the meter deal is that the city did not ask for a price based on future rate increases. That is, the city did not bargain for the value of it's asset when rates were projected out to market levels, and thus shot itself in the foot. The city therefore failed because it lacked the courage to either raise parking rates itself, or even to bargain for their fair market value. That was the failure, not raising the rates. The increased revenue from a hike should have stayed with the city in addition to regulating parking demand. Now we only have the latter.

David Farley said...

It seems I erred, unless someone can find more recent info. From what I've been able to find, the City writes the tickets and keeps all fines. The number of ticket enforcement officers was increased after LAZ took over. (In fact, in one source I ran across, there was a to-do over giving all aldermen the power to write tickets themselves.)

I pointed out before that half the point of having more meters is the ability to write more tickets, legit or not. A moral hazard, as this story seems to suggest.,0,360324.story

Richard Gill said...

I agree with David Farley, that the price of a Chicago city sticker ($79) already is a hefty tax on owning a car in Chicago (unless you're a "senior" like me, in which case it's $30, a 60% discount that may be almost as silly as free bus rides for seniors, but that's another story). However, extending the argument that the sticker fee should cover lakefront parking, leads to arguing that there should be no metered parking anywhere. That won't, and shouldn't happen.

I also agree with SR that car owners (plus everybody else, I'd say) get soaked for the city's mistakes. But we also pay for the mistakes of Frito Lay and Procter & Gamble whenever we buy corn chips or laundry soap. Or the, ahem, mistakes of our condo boards when we pay assessments.

Just wait till Chicago starts putting a tax on driving into the central business district, like London and Oslo. Maybe a good idea, actually, but can't you hear the wailing already?

m said...

TA, even if you made it on time, or even before 6:30, you couldn't get in. The meeting was a totally set-up nonsense. The room capacity is 80 people max. Because Montgomery is a retirement home, the fire code is strict and no more people are allowed in the room, AND the hallway. A: The people who were likely to be able to get in the room were residents of Montgomery which has their own parking lot. Besides, if I may way, many of them are too old to drive. B: The building has a strict fire code so that it doesn't allow more people to attend. It doesn't even allow people to remain standing in the hallway to just listen to the discussions. C: Police was there, too. Thus, it was obvious that the meeting was set in such a way that only 80 relatively quiet people could attend. Who set up the meeting at that place?

I talked with other people who were also turned away outside the building. And people's problem is NOT the meters in the lot. We want a residential parking permit zone, which Hairston doesn't approve because it will turn away customers of local business(?). Basically Hairston wants to keep Bar Louie patrons at the cost of residents.

I heard later that in the meeting there was an explanation about the reserved spots in the lot. 100 spots in the lot will be reserved for those who purchase a permit for $125 per months. Paying $125 does not assure you a spot. Comparing to the $25 per year residential permit, this is almost fraudulent.

Although Chicago Pop titled Hairston's position as "populism", in fact, her claim is NOT AT ALL popular. Many of the residents have already moved forward from the pay lot. What people want is making the South Shore Drive a residential parking zone. They are so frustrated by her not approving it for a reason nobody can understand.

TA said...

M, thanks for the comment and the note on the meeting. Sounds like it was chaos, and for those of us looking hopefully at the next election I guess that's not completely a bad thing. It certainly shows that Alderman Hairston's management skills are not up to snuff.

As for the parking, I think you're right that if they want to make the lot pay parking then they need to either make the street parking on S Shore Dr. either paid or permit. You cannot put paid parking and free parking within 50 yards of each other and expect people to choose to pay for parking. Arguably the permits should cost more than $25/month, but the principle still stands that there needs to be an incentive for Point/Lake users to park in the lot.

Thanks again for the update!

Richard Gill said...

m and TA say it well - Residential permit parking will be necessary in the area near the 55th/Lake Shore parking lot. I know Alderman Hairston has come out against permit parking, but she is going to have to budge. Anyway, election time is coming up, and permit parking will work in favor of the 5th Ward voters in that area. For one thing, the combination of parking meters and permits will help to reduce the noise and rowdiness around the lot, that residents have complained about for years.

Permit parking can be time-limited and managed so that it minimizes inconvenience to non-area residents.

If the Alderman simply won't budge, the residents should organize, petition the City Council, going over the Alderman's head, and make a huge stink.

Yes. permit parking should cost significantly more than it now costs. The permits are gold to local residents, and they should pay more. Also, residential permit parking is a factor in making dense neighborhoods attractive for investment, real estate values and for livability. If everyone had a garage, the permits would be unnecessary. But the city wasn't built that way. Alderman Hairston is swimming upstream on this issue.

David Farley said...

So because the parking lot at 55th is now pay, everybody is going to park on S. Shore Drive? And because everybody parks on S. Shore Drive, they'll have to pay to get a permit to park there? What is this, the party that never ends?

TA said...

No David, its making people pay for a good that is a privilege and not right. For a city that supposedly wants to promote efficient, clean, public transportation we certainly have a perverse set of incentives going the other way. I think Chicago Pop has already made the argument about why parking shouldn't be free if we're going to get efficient use of the spots (which is really what charging for parking should be about).

You asked about those expensive stickers that the City makes you buy every year. If those stickers actually cost what it takes to upkeep roads, pay for parking, and keep gas prices down at US levels rather than European prices, I think the stickers wouldn't be anywhere near as nicely priced.

Of course then we wouldn't complain as much about parking since there would be less cars and more people using other forms of transit. Maybe we could also then spend more money on building better mass transit and further increasing the incentives for people to use it. The problem is that for most of the country, cheap automobile transportation is viewed as a fundamental right and not the privilege that people should be paying for. Nobody ever argued that charging people for this would be popular, just that it would be right.

Richard Gill said...

HYDE PARKERS, ALDERMAN PIQUED, BLAST PARKING FEES. On April 15, I imagined that wording would constitute the front-page banner headline in the April 21 edition of the Hyde Park Herald (See my April 15, 12:07pm comment, above).

The parking story's headline wasn't the top banner, but it did occupy page 1: LAKEFRONT METERS ROIL HYDE PARKERS, right above a photo of Alderman Hairston speaking at the public meeting about the meters. I think I was pretty close.

I also anticipated a huge editorial about the parking thing, with the volume turned way up. Bingo again. About halfway through the editorial, note the "Please, please please..." Really tugs at your tender spot, if you like the sound of children whining at their parents to take them to the circus.

I was off in my forecast that the editorial page would be loaded with letters about parking meters. There was one long letter. Maybe they're being saved up for next week.

So I'll claim 2 for 3, a .667 batting average.

This isn't to draw attention to any alleged internal crystal ball of mine. It's just to show how totally, utterly, unfailingly predictable the Herald is.

David Farley said...

Normally I pay to park my car in a garage, but today, only because it suited my selfish purposes, I put on my sense of entitlement and parked for free, free, free on S. Shore Drive, where half the spaces were empty. Since it's raining, I'll consider that a free car wash, too.