Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Is Parking Being Subsidized?

It just so happens that I've worked in a landmark hotel here in San Francisco as a reception desk clerk for the past several years. Originally, I took this job as a stopgap, figuring I'd find work in my trade as a Lithographer at a later date. Two things happened. First of all, I found that the union benefits and seniority protections made my job quite enviable. Lastly, I discovered that my trade is all but a tattered remnant in the city where I wish to live, thanks to outsourcing and other things.

On top of everything else, I have found that I really like what I do for a living. I have many opportunities daily to talk to all sorts of people from all sorts of socioeconomic backgrounds, and varied cultures. The more I get to meet all these people, the more I've begun to realize that we all share the same concerns, hold the same values, and essentially we share much more in common than what might separate us. It also gives me an opportunity to plant seeds of change. I started this blog with the hopes that some of my ideas (those seeds of change) would get picked up and discussed, and people would begin to see some of the things I have noticed, and begin to reach their own conclusions. Right now, this blog has yet to gain any real readership or recognition, but it is a place where I am free to write down my insights and formulate ideas. Perhaps one day it will take off, but even if it simply inspires a few individuals to do something, then it has served a purpose greater than what I could ever do by myself.

Words – or better said, the ideas which words represent are powerful forces that can manifest themselves as physical realities. This is why we are wise to pick our words carefully. We are wise to refrain from immediately reacting to a given situation. Silence can be one's best defense. More often than not, we are generally unconscious to our words, and we tend to parrot everything we hear. At some point we can believe our own lies, and then those lies, or distortions, or exaggerations become manifest in the physical world in all sorts of ways.

My job in particular, is one of those jobs where diplomacy is paramount. But that does not mean I'm not free to express myself. I just have to choose my words with extreme care. Once a guest inquired as to whether or not I supported trade unions. It was apparent to me that our guest was not a fan of organized labor. My response to her was "Yes, I support organized labor. I am actually one of the representatives of my union here at this hotel, and it is my duty to ensure that our negotiated contract is followed and to make sure that our members are treated equitably. I don't believe that unions are free from corruption, or that they never make grave mistakes, or even that there have not been times unions have worked against their best economic interests. I keep an open mind, and many detractors of organized labor have made some valid arguments against them. Ideally, labor would represent all working people – not just those who are able to organize. But in the end, I believe there needs to be a balance of power for a democratic process to function, and in this country, the only true representatives of labor have been trade unions, and when it comes right down to the nitty-gritty, I know that my union has my best interests at heart." Our guest was dumbstruck, and realized that in my summary there was no way she could argue with me, because I had made a concession to her, and confessed that I did not have the perfect answer, but I made it clear that I would support the organization that had my best interests first and foremost. And why would I or anyone else for that matter, vote against our interests? I'm sure that this lady walked away with a different perspective, and perhaps more open to other ideas. If anything, I was at least successful in explaining why there are people who support unions. Had I been afraid to express myself, or worse yet, had I come across as defensive and argumentative, no transformation would take place – to the contrary, this individual would likely become more entrenched in her world view.

A few months ago, we raised our parking rates from $45 to $50 overnight. It is incredible how many of our guest's are up in arms over this. My strategy initially was to avert the blame by stating that the hotel does not manage the garage, and we have no control over their parking rates, which is generally correct. After seeing that averting the blame did little to quell our guest's ire, I tried another tactic, which was one of comparison. Stating that our parking rates were within the going rate in the area, seemed to work a little better. But I've found that my best tactic is simply to side with the guest and say something to the effect of, "isn't it crazy?". The problem with this tactic is that it is disingenuous. Let me explain why this is so.

There are things that have inherent value. A thing becomes more valuable as its scarcity rises. Space is one of those things. If you think about it, you'll realize that space is indeed limited on this planet. In fact, the oceans cover two thirds of the surface – so you can immediately count that out until we start building floating cities! But the truth of the matter is that space, especially in urban areas, is at a premium. And when you begin to realize that the auto-centric urban environments have dedicated a surprising amount of space to the personal motorcar, you'll also begin to realize how amazingly subsidized that space is when compared to everything else. I have made the same point repeatedly regarding fuel costs. The real price of gas is conservatively estimated at $20 per gallon. If the consumer were to see this reality at the pump, he would sell his car, buy a bicycle, move closer to work, or take public transit (or do all the aforementioned).

So let's get back to the idea of a privately owned car, and the ability to park it at will on open public space, or within a garage. One of my mental exercises involves taking a stroll through one's neighborhood and imagining personal, and privately owned objects, preferably of value, in place of the cars that are parked on the street. If you spot a new Mercedes Benz, then you can imagine a fine Persian carpet with a very expensive leather sofa, and perhaps an antique end table with a lovely art nouveau lamp on it, since that would essentially equate the value of the car in that space. Now let's say we come across a compact economy car, like a Toyota. Now we can imagine a large plasma screen television set and high-fidelity stereo system and a nice modern recliner in its place. Lastly, imagine a smog-belching junk heap of an automobile that might be worth five hundred dollars on a good day. You've just imagined my entire apartment's furnishings! Isn't this a fun exercise? This is exactly what personal transport is with a few important differences. First of all, it is arguably more of an eyesore, and it is noisier, it emits toxic fumes (and people get upset with cigarette smokers!), and it is only available to its owner. Presumably, if one were to park a sofa on the street, people tired from walking could take a break and sit upon it.

Most importantly, the car is designed to be mobile, although ironically, it spends over ninety percent of its time resting. That means that wherever I drive my car to, I need a space to park it once I get there. If you figure conservatively that the average parking space takes up 275 square feet, and every car owner needs an average of six parking spaces throughout the city at their disposal, then each car needs roughly 1,650 square feet of space for its intended operation, not including roadways. Now if you figure your average apartment is 700 square feet, and the average rent in this city is $1500 per month, you'll see that the residential rate is roughly $2 per square foot. If you figure that each car requires 1650 square feet of space throughout the city, then would it not be equitable to charge $3000 per month for its parking requirements? Can you begin to see how car owners are subsidized? Even if you were to charge for a single residential space, the equitable amount would be $550 per month, and our parking rates are not anywhere near that. You can buy a residential permit in my crowded neighborhood and park your heap of junk for $60 annually, or quite frankly next to nothing. Why is such valuable space considered so exclusive to the private use of car owners?

By now, you can probably see where I'm going here. Could it be then that parking is also subsidized by our hotel guests? Our hotel's average daily rate for a room is about $250 per night. Our average room is about 450 square feet. That equates to 55 cents per square foot. So you can see right off that $50 per night for a parking space is one third the going rate. Albeit, there is minimal maintenance, no maid service, and little in the way of utilities involved in keeping a parking space. However, there is overhead involved – there are parking attendants and there is a valet parking service. I dare say, a more equitable rate would be $80 per night, and I figure that conservatively. So to a certain degree, our guests who choose not to use our parking facility are subsidizing our guests who do utilize the parking facility.

As long as car ownership is considered a right in this country, and as long as we continue to subsidize its use, attitudes will likely never change. Yet when you begin to consider the actual cost of the automobile, the alternatives begin to look quite appealing indeed. The less we rely on our cars within urban environments, the more we can begin to invest in attractive alternatives. There are infinite possibilities out there. There is no particular reason why we cannot fathom cities with carfree zones, or carfree cities, for that matter. I for one, hope that someday I will be able to live in my city as a free citizen, stripped from the burdens of autocentric culture, where children are free to play in the streets, where citizens can gather in public spaces without fear of being hit by a car, and where there is less noise and pollution.

Now its your turn to imagine the possibilities.

1 comment:

Curtis said...

amen, brother!