About 2 months ago, the parking on Hillsborough Street increased in price by 50 cents and extended the pay period’s ending from 5 to 8 p.m. My gut reaction was negative; Hillsborough felt important to me, and as an off-campus student who frequently parked on the street for easy access to the library and for dinner, having to wait until 8 p.m. seemed like a real pain, almost exclusionary. I stuck with that reaction for a while; every time I would drive by, I would think to myself “Such a dumb change, another needless obstacle to increase revenue.”
But recently, I’ve had a change of heart. After looking into the progressive aspects of paid parking, I think there are larger issues at play than the dismissive gut reaction of calling something a “dumb change” simply because its benefits are not initially apparent.
First, let’s go over how and why this change was made. According to Alicia Thomas’s interview with Jeff Murison, president and CEO of the Hillsborough Street Community Service Corporation, the change was made for the sake of efficiency. The group found that Hillsborough parking was only 5% vacant and was aiming for 20% vacancy to improve efficiency. The group also conducted a survey, finding that parking was the “number one issue that people say needs to be addressed.” This change was intended to increase vacant parking spaces for everyone by simply increasing the cost of parking.
And sure, increased costs did make my life a little inconvenient. More than a few times directly following the change, friends and I would ride to get food only to be greeted by a “pay to park” sign. But after a while, I just started parking on NC State’s campus (which usually has free parking after 5 p.m.) and walked, no big deal. Yes, it was a small obstacle, but perhaps not as needless as I initially thought.
Efficiency is one thing, but that didn't bury the issue for me. In the past, there was another big reason I disliked paid parking: the slightly classist implications. An increased cost of using a parking space seemed to me like it would make parking inaccessible to those with low income.
But paid parking actually has a strange relationship with class in this respect. Most individuals with low income — who would be most impacted by an increase in price for a public good — don’t drive as much. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is an entirely separate issue, but it does create a scenario that flips my initially classist interpretation on its head.
If parking was instead paid for by taxes (how “free” parking works), rather than by meter, it would actually result in a more unequal outcome. Individuals who paid taxes yet did not park — like low-income folks — would be footing the bill for everyone else. Low-income folks aren't the only byproduct of this; cyclists and others who use renewable forms of transportation are also on the hook to pay for free parking.
In fact, paid parking, while initially seeming to come from the seventh circle of hell, actually has several progressive merits to it, and they can even be seen on campus. With an active and effective bus system around NC State, students almost always have another, more environmentally friendly option at their disposal. Plus, the simple fact is the carbon emissions per person transported on public transportation can't be matched by a car, and maybe increasing the cost of using a car when there are other options is something we need right now.
But I do still have reservations and critiques. For one, I’ll admit that I too find 8 p.m. to be a tad bit excessive when it comes to how late you must pay for parking. Even a reduction of an hour, or perhaps just 30 minutes, would be a big deal for students looking to get dinner at a reasonable time. Secondly, I have some suggestions on how to spend the revenue collected from the parking meters in Hillsborough. Considering many drivers don't have to use public transportation, many non-drivers must use it, and the world could use some more of it, I think funding the improvement of public transportation could benefit just about everyone. If public transportation is the future, we can at least start making it more pleasant now.
In the end, these changes, while simply made to improve efficiency, actually have a number of side effects so large and important to the ideal of a better world that one may hardly consider them side effects. When a system like this is actually taking strides to a greener and less unequal society while also improving efficiency, I can hardly dismiss it as another “dumb change.”