Let me start by saying that I live in Downtown Detroit by choice. I happen to like it. So when I occasionally complain to friends that some element of the whole Downtown situation is not quite up to snuff, I am sometimes rebuffed with the observation that I have made my own bed. That’s not really fair. Wherever you go there are ups and downs. Downtown Detroit certainly has a lot of strong points. But parking one’s car happens not to be one of them.
I frequently come out of my apartment building on Broadway Street near the Detroit Opera House to find a small crowd gathered at a point close to the middle of the block. If I hadn’t seen this so many times I might think “oh, perhaps a street performer!” or “has someone just lost an earring?” But sadly, I already know that it is neither of these things. For you see, the people in this crowd, whether young or old or fat or thin have but one objective in mind; to pay for parking. And it is a goal that tragically, none of them shall reach.
You see, there is a single meter on the block and it accepts credit cards and coins. However, it rarely works. Though it malfunctions the screen and menu remain on as a sort of false hope (I suppose it is the card-reader that breaks) and so the unlucky people congregate around it, scratching their heads and one by one inserting their credit cards at various angles and speeds in a vain attempt at appeasement. I have tangled with the thing myself on occasion, mostly out of a sort of sympathetic neighborliness upon seeing a distressed fellow citizen than out of any real hope of success. Usually the next thing that happens is that the multi-pocket search ritual for appropriate loose change goes into full swing. Women dive into cavernous purses, men go through the dark recesses of their coats’ minor pockets and even the kids idly search the gutter for the glitter of coins. Mutinous looks are exchanged, but there is no one present to overthrow, or even to accept responsibility. Together, the thwarted parkers ratchet up a group feeling of frustration as someone cracks the usual, “Well, whaddaya expect, it is Detroit?”
Perhaps this impressionistic little parable is merely anecdotal, an occurrence that is disturbing because it is rare. Not so. The problem with parking in Detroit in many ways echoes the problems of I-94 and the freeway system of Metro Detroit; most of the time there is too much capacity (more pavement than the cars really need), and during peak hours there is too little. This means that Detroit’s commuters, whether for work, Tiger’s games or just enjoying the Downtown ambiance are nearly always put on the receiving end of unpleasant congestion. Such traffic congestion adds substantial travel time and is severely exacerbated by the dearth of an operable street parking system. Usually congestion is a grin-and-bear it affair, but during ultra-peak times where the city plays host to tens of times its normal population, parking capacity can strain to the breaking point.
This too-much-or-too-little capacity problem is exemplified by the perennial conflict between local businesses and parking lots which charge ten, twenty five and even fifty dollars during special events. High parking prices are generally bad for business (unless your business is parking lots), since it either discourages customers or takes money out of their pockets that could have gone towards purchases. But the parking lot owners claim that the high charges are necessary since during non-peak times Detroit can sometimes seem like a ghost town. In short, pretty much everyone loses because people who live in Detroit during non-peak times are actively discouraged from advantaging themselves of the automobility that most of the city’s urban plan requires.
The elephant in the room here is that the City of Detroit actually doesn’t want you to part on the street. The private parking lots pricing scheme is built on a fear of window-smashing and car-theft that has been well-supported by the long-standing activity of Detroit’s prodigious criminal element. That means that during peak times, such as sports games or special events, the City has an incentive to discourage the less expensive street parking in order to reduce the burden on police responding to car theft and break-ins. This was highlighted by a disturbing episode this past January when the now-retired police Commander Kenny Williams actually banned street parking. During the weekend of January 6-8 the Police Department that the combination of the North American International Auto Show, a Red Wings’ game and a popular rap concert, with over 200,000 expected visitors, would pose too great a strain.
While there is a lot of feel-good sentiment about Detroit these days, episodes like this highlight a profound conflict over plans for the city’s future; Detroit for Detroiters versus Detroit for Commuters. To succeed at its stated goals of energizing urban growth and economic development of the Downtown area, city planners must balance the interests of these two groups where they come to loggerheads. This is especially true given all of the incentive programs designed to entice more people to settle in the city as permanent residents. It should be obvious that the willful neglect of the street parking system does not signal the sort of administrative ownership that prospective Detroiters want to see. People who come to Detroit only for a short while are always commenting on how awful it is to get a reasonable parking spot. That’s not only true for visitors; it makes planning any sort of get-together with car-borne friends a tremendous headache. It is hard to come by hard data on the meter situation in Detroit, but Josh McManus of Little Things Labs estimates that at any given time around 60% of the city’s parking meters may be out of commission. That means, if you park on the street at any given place, you are more likely than not to get a ticket.
For any city, parking matters. Yes, it’s woefully mundane but, like it or not, finding and leaving a parking spot are often the first and last impressions that many people have of visiting Detroit. If a visit to the Downtown area ends in an undeserved parking ticket, well, that just leaves a bad taste. The ticket recipient may be less likely to come to Downtown again, and they are certainly less likely to consider residing in Detroit. Bill Johnson, award-winning journalist and media relations consultant, notes that people react to parking frustrations in Detroit with visceral negativity. It is not merely that meters are broken, he argues, but that they are also chronically over-enforced. The incentive system rewards parking officers for issuing tickets and presumes the guilt of the recipient who must then jump through inconvenient bureaucratic hoops to protest their innocence. In cases where the meter is broken, ambiguity over the legality of parking means that the parking officers often win out, while visitors and Detroiters lose.
Thankfully, there is a simple solution. It is not hypothetical or particularly experimental, but it is innovative and it is exactly what Detroit needs. It is called Parkmobile, and it is an app that lets you pay for parking directly with your smartphone. That way, if a meter is broken (as you can reasonably bet that it will be) the City won’t lose your meter revenue and you won’t get a ticket. As Free Press’s Mark Phelan notes, the system painlessly alleviates the angst of illegal parking and saves you from going back to refill a meter. I first test-drove the Parkmobile system when I was in Washington, D.C. visiting family and can attest that it worked like a charm. For a city like D.C. where street parking spots are worth their surface area in gold and one often parks several blocks from a destination, the ability to re-up for another hour remotely was particularly appealing. The system has been implemented in Ferndale and Dearborn, with both municipalities seeing an increase in meter revenues. Detroit should get with the program. This is a no-brainer win-win.
About Edmund Zagorin
Edmund is a Detroit-based paradox enthusiast and entrepreneur, specializing in video and interactive event production.