Friday, August 04, 2006

The Day Subsidized Parking Died

Arcata Eye
August 4, 2006

The people of Arcata remember back 10 years ago to 2006 when gas steadily climbed past $3 per gallon and wonder how they ended up saddled with this mess. Few people drive anymore, and yet so much of our land that we need for housing ourselves and growing food is taken up by pavement.

Sounds like paranoid fantasy? May I suggest reading up a little on the concept of Peak Oil? With gas going over $3 a gallon for good and parking at HSU set to jump to almost $160 per semester in two years, the twilight of our easy-motoring lifestyle is starting to show a little more clearly.

Yet our road infrastructure is over-built even for the amount we use it today. Look around you at most times of day and you see wide empty streets and plentiful parking in most parts of town at most times of day. This is kind of nice for motorists, except the City can’t afford to repave streets. Many back streets and even some major streets are deteriorating rapidly, and the when the city gets around to repaving, it only repaves the middle of the street, leaving the sides to continue crumbling. It has become apparent that we have too much pavement for our own economic good.

As oil becomes rarer in the next few years, gasoline will pass $4, and then $5 or $6 per gallon, and people will start to cut back on their driving. With fewer cars on the road, we will want wide streets even less. Since asphalt that we repave our streets with is made of oil, our wide boulevards will become a major liability.

I have some suggestions to divest Arcata of some of its pavement, and generate funds to maintain and develop the rest of our transportation infrastructure to deal with the future.

These ideas all stem from one simple paradigm shift:

We must stop subsidizing automobile parking.

We’re subsidizing parking? How much do you think it costs to maintain all that pavement and mitigate its effects on runoff? Who pays for it?

Janes Creek floods over the top of 11th street almost every winter. This problem has grown as the watershed has been paved and built over. We pay for street maintenance through taxes, which are not based on the amount you use the street.

Once we can agree that we should follow this paradigm shift, some ideas follow that get us ready for a changing energy future. Here are three of them:

1. Convert public parking near the HSU campus and downtown to metered parking.

There don’t need to be meters at every spot anymore. If you’ve been to Portland, you’ve probably seen the kiosks where you can buy a sticker for your car window with a certain amount of time on it. They’re virtually vandal-proof, and you can even pay with a credit card. Students, when faced with $157.50 per semester parking permits at the campus (coming in 2008), are getting quite a steal now with free four-hour parking that your tax dollars pay to re-stripe and repave. Same goes for downtown, while the City Council throws around ideas for putting a parking structure under the Arcata Ball Park. Any idea how many millions that would cost?

Money from parking meters would go a long way toward refurbishing our crumbling streets and discouraging unnecessary auto trips to congested areas.

2. Require permits for parking on the street in residential areas.

These need not be expensive, but if car owners wish to use the street for long-term parking, they should pay for the costs of maintaining that pavement, and the mitigation of flooding that too much pavement causes. Residents could choose to park off-street, or pay for on-street parking for their own cars. Cheap guest permits would allow visitors to park on the street for more than a few hours.

3. Sell off extra street width.

It’s pretty easy to relax parking requirements in new development, so we don’t end up with an overbuilt car infrastructure there, but what about all the existing neighborhoods?

Giving residents the opportunity to buy land in front of their lots will give the City an influx of cash, unload paved areas we can’t afford to repave, and provide the opportunity for homeowners to do something a little different with it, like using “grassy pavers” so they can still park in front of their house but cause less runoff into the creeks, or just eliminate parking and extend their garden out. There might be areas where the owner might even build a second unit on their lot, since the expensive energy future will require a much higher density living arrangement. We can provide incentives to encourage landowners to do the right thing, depending whether flooding (Janes Creek Watershed), wildlife habitat (areas near the marsh or community forest) or increasing housing density (close to downtown or campus) is an issue in the particular area.

People would then be able to own their on-street parking, and there would be no more whining about the neighbor parking in front of your house. If you buy the parking spaces in front of your house, no one will be able to park there without your permission. If you buy a permit, you can park in the remaining unclaimed spots. This whole idea may seem a bit radical, but since fewer people will own cars in the future, it will make sense for the majority not to have to pay for parking for the motoring minority.

The next time you are out and about, (preferably on foot or on your bike!), take a look at our streets and ask yourself how they would look to a population of mostly non-motorists. If you believe (as I do) that Peak Oil is approaching and there will be no easy answers to power the number of vehicles we drive today, you will be stunned at the predicament we are facing. We have built an infrastructure that has no future, but we can sculpt it to our future needs if we start today! Folks will not be ready for implementation of some of the ideas in this column, but I don’t think any of us are ready for the reality of $7 per gallon gas either.

Chris has been watching the Tour de France on TV and working on a new bathroom while waiting for his thesis back from his advisor.

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