A 50 Percent Increase in Parking Fines? Crazy Detroit

Parking is not a profit engine. It is a service that should help local retailers, restaurants, and other businesses. It's a way to cycle traffic through and keep neighborhoods moving.
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In the seven years I have lived in and grown to love Detroit, I have learned a lot of things. For instance: Even in a broken city like ours, you gotta feed the meters.

During last winter's bleakest polar vortexes (aka the day before yesterday), I was impressed with the dedication and vigilance of the people who enforce our parking. They work hard and do a good job. I respect them and, despite the occasional fine I have to pull off my windshield, I bear them no ill will (except for that one guy who gave me a ticket for no reason; I hate that guy).

A couple of years back, when parking hours were extended to 10 p.m., I tried to point out that this might not be the best way to support Detroit's burgeoning revitalization. Being an advertising man, I framed it as a marketing challenge: Detroit has been competing against The Suburbs for decades and while The Suburbs don't have a lot of the good things Detroit has, the one thing they do have is a grotesquely ample supply of free parking. The big malls and the strip malls and the office parks all may look like they were designed by the same bleak, depressed drunk on a drizzly, gray afternoon, but the one lo-fi siren song they all sing together is "Come on, pull on in, park for free, free, free, yeah..." There is so much free parking out there, you'd think Oakland County was being run by socialists or something.

These are the same suburbs that are always, always trying to keep people from coming into Detroit. The other verse of their song goes, "Why go to Cliff Belles? Why go to Roast? Why go to Lafayette Coney? You can watch the game and eat fried cheese right here at TGIF's, conveniently located in the middle of the Fairlane parking lot. Yeah..."

Now, the little shop I helped open in midtown Detroit has a row of metered spaces out lining the street in front of it. We don't mind. We have a great meter maid who always waves and says hello. We love her! And she is vigilant! But those stores out at Somerset don't have these same sorts of small town charms. They only have acres and acres of free parking. Such density of available asphalt practically comes with its own gravitational force. Is it any wonder people are drawn there?

Recently Kevyn Orr and his chief operations officer Gary Brown announced a plan to increase parking fines from $30 to $45. They also included a whole lot of other policies that jack up the cost for people who can't make it to the meter in time.

Now, our Emergency Financial Manager has worked hard to help the city through its crisis and while cynicism tends to reign supreme in Detroit, I for one have been impressed with the way he has managed his way through a number of particularly thorny issues.

Which is why, on a civic matter that is so seemingly trivial compared to all he's been up against, it's disconcerting to see him so completely wrong. Seriously wrong. It's dumbfounding. He has other, much more important issues to deal with. Why bother with this at all?

If the Emergency Manager wants to address the parking issue in Detroit, he could begin by thinking a little more systematically:

(a) If you are going to pay more you should expect to get more. Guarantee a decent level of service. Our meters are too broken too often.

(b) Shorten the hours when meters are enforced, which could lower costs and make local businesses happier.

(c) Develop a plan to address the primitive mid-twentieth century system of surface parking that wastes Detroit's most valuable real estate space.

(d) eliminate some of those meters altogether.

(e) finally, if you do nothing else, look at a less draconian price increase. Because a 50 oercebt increase in anything short of loving seems absolutely wrong.

In many places, cities have worked with local businesses to develop enlightened parking systems that encourage visitors and generate local revenue. Go visit Santa Monica's Promenade on a Saturday afternoon and compare their foot traffic to our downtown or midtown's. Or, if you can't make it to the California coastline, go and visit Ocean Prime out in Troy. You'll have no problem finding a spot.

Parking is not a profit engine. It is a service that should help local retailers, restaurants, and other businesses. It's a way to cycle traffic through and keep neighborhoods moving. If local businesses don't feel like they are being served by the new policies, then Kevyn Orr and Gary Brown should probably stop and listen to what they have to say. There are plenty of positive examples to help us, all around the country, all around the world. We could work together to find a better way.

Otherwise, of course, there are plenty of little businesses way out on Big Beaver Road, just sitting there, waiting to profit from our mistakes. Again.

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