Cityscape: So Many Cars, So Little Space 

Loop traffic is not Worst during rush hours but in the middle of the day, when short-term visitors who really need curbside parking circle endlessly searching for spaces.

"All sorts of remedies were proposed," recalled John LaPlante. "Ban all cars from the Loop. Ban street parking. Ban left turns. Ban right turns. Ban all turns."

These modest proposals were the work of a business and government task force, the Task Force on Downtown Curb Parking, formed last spring by the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry (ACI). LaPlante, who works in the city's Public Works department and cochaired the task force, was reporting on its progress to some 40 people who had shown up at the Cultural Center for a brown-bag session cohosted by Friends of Downtown and the Chicago chapter of the Women's Transportation Seminar, a professional group of engineers, planners, and transit-system operators.

What pigeons are to the Loop's window ledges, parked cars are to its streets. Cars are left in loading zones and bus stops. They block fire hydrants and turn lanes. Anarchy impends; were it not for our providentially high curbs, Chicagoans might challenge the Romans in bravado and park right on the sidewalks.

What we have, in short, is a parking jam.

No gang's turf, no hot development property, is fought over more energetically than the 8- to 10-foot-wide strip of asphalt that lies next to a Loop sidewalk. "The curb lane is where the action takes place," task-force chairman Richard Hocking explained. That space is public property, and much of it has been set aside for uses palpably in the public interest--loading zones mainly, from bus stops and taxi stands to truck docks and parking spaces for the handicapped. The rest has been converted to metered parking spaces for use by that class of Loop visitor, such as errand runners, tourists, and shoppers, whose presence is essential to the Loop but whose short-term parking needs cannot conveniently be provided for anywhere else than on the street.

The half-hour limits on Loop parking meters are intended to guarantee rapid turnover of these curbside spaces; theoretically, a single parking space could thus accommodate well over a dozen such transients per business day. From the city's point of view, then, using a curbside space to park a single car all day is about as sensible as using your dining room to store your wedding dress and baby crib. Hocking called this "not the best use of the facility. Obviously, the intent of policy has been sublimated to the desires of Loop workers to park cheaply."

Illegal parking is making it harder to do business in the Loop, and the ACI wanted to explore ways to unclog its vital arteries. The task force assembled under the ACI's auspices ultimately included transit officials, planners, private garage operators, City Hall types, and representatives of civic groups like Friends of Downtown. Together they studied maps and took bus tours and made informal surveys of meter enforcement, and like most task forces, found out what they already knew. "The level of encroachment by long-term parkers is fairly substantial," explained Hocking, a vice president of Barton-Aschman Associates, a transportation consulting firm. "We found that the average length of stay on a half-hour meter was six hours." By the time the intended users of metered spots arrive in the Loop, the street spaces are already filled. Parking problems create traffic problems; morning and evening rush hours are not the crunch times for Loop traffic.

Workers in cars heading for off-street parking spaces move directly to those berths and then disappear for the day. "A car parked in a garage is not traffic," noted LaPlante. A car that circles the block looking for a place to park is, especially when it is circling during the period of heaviest loading demand. "When traffic in the Loop comes to a complete halt," said LaPlante, "is from 11 AM to 1:30 PM."

Off-street parking is not the answer to all Loop parking problems, however. It has been the city's policy for years to discourage the use of cars in the Loop by restricting the number of places one may put them while they aren't being used. Construction of new garages, for example, is banned inside the el tracks. Downtown developers are generally limited in the number of off-street spaces they may provide in their buildings. (The exception is "VIP" spaces. As LaPlante noted, "A vice president of Inland Steel is not going to ride in with me on the bus.")

Such restrictions, coupled with the loss of existing off-street spaces as surface parking lots are built upon, have pushed up the demand for off-street parking, and thus the price that garage operators can command. According to a 1988 survey by Friends of Downtown, monthly rental rates in parts of the Loop ran as high as $325 per space, with most costing around $150.

Compared to those numbers, street spaces can seem temptingly cheap. A half-hour stay at a metered space costs 50 cents. A diligent meter-feeder thus pays a buck an hour, or roughly $160 per month--not the cheapest rate in the Loop but far from the most expensive. But consider the fact that meter-feeding is illegal. LaPlante prefers to quote the official cost of one hour at a Loop meter at $10.50--"50 cents for the first half-hour, and ten dollars for the ticket you get for being there for a second half-hour." But however one estimates the dollar value of these premium parking spaces--equivalent cost, land cost, the cost of building and maintaining them--street parking in the Loop is too cheap. "Two dollars an hour," said Hocking, "begins to feel a little more equitable."

Raising basic meter rates has been proposed before but has usually been opposed by Loop retailers, who are afraid that higher street-parking costs will further discourage suburban shoppers accustomed to free parking. LaPlante dismissed that concern as groundless, saying "That's not the market for downtown anymore"; increasingly, Loop shoppers are downtown already, working. (Deliveries, not customers, are crucial for the Loop to function as a business and retail center.) Hocking added that higher meter rates are moot since street spaces aren't available for short-term commercial parking anyway.

Besides, fewer and fewer people even bother to feed meters in the Loop. "Chicago has 39 parking-enforcement aides," noted LaPlante. "Los Angeles has more than 300. Manhattan--not the whole city of New York, just Manhattan--has more than 700." LaPlante walked Loop streets with task-force members checking meters; only one-quarter to one-half of overdue parkers had been ticketed. Even if the offender is caught, the fine for overtime parking is only $10, a per-day parking rate comparable to that for off-street spaces and thus hardly punitive. That's assuming, of course, that the driver pays the ticket, which four out of five in Chicago do not.

It is not only the metered spaces that are being commandeered. On Dearborn in the heart of the Loop, an off-street truck loading dock has been chained off by the building management and converted to private, reserved parking spaces for ten cars. This despite the fact that city zoners require developers to provide off-street loading space in order to preserve curbside space for public rather than private use. Appropriating the loading area amounts to vandalism against public order. Owners and managers of Loop buildings, Hocking insisted, "have a responsibility to look beyond the property line."

"The trucks still have to get in there," said an exasperated Hocking, who added that as a result they must load and unload in alleys or, worst of all, in traffic lanes. Then other vehicles that need access to the curb, such as buses, are pushed out into traffic lanes in turn; obstructed, buses become traffic obstructions themselves. Hopes among retailers of rerouting some bus traffic from State onto Dearborn will founder if buses can't move through Dearborn. "Once one part of the Loop traffic system gets out of whack," Hocking said, "the whole thing suffers."

Raising the per-offense fines for overtime-parking tickets to punitive levels (say, $100) clearly will not deter all-day parkers unless meter violations are ticketed more dependably. Besides, slapping $100 fines on all overtime parkers would be like pouring gasoline on your lawn to get rid of the dandelions: it would discourage the occasional visitor (who is not the problem) as efficiently as it would the Loop worker (who is). Hocking and LaPlante agreed that a better approach would be to keep the fine for each overtime offense relatively low but to ticket cars for each violation of the half-hour limit. Potentially, then, a half-dozen $10 tickets could be written on a single car in one day. To paraphrase the late senator Everett Dirksen, ten bucks here and ten bucks there pretty soon add up to real money.

The task force hopes to issue recommendations by the end of the year. There are almost certain to be pleas for improved ticket writing and collection, along with recommendations that some curbside space be reallocated. At some intersections, for example, potential right-turn-only lanes might be created from metered spaces, and in other locations, little-used loading zones might be converted to metered spots. Other obvious remedies include the speedier towing of illegally parked cars (trucks presently average only one tow per two hours), an increase in meter rates, and possibly enforcing better compliance with zoning agreements by developers. "No one thing," said LaPlante, "will solve the parking problem downtown."

"Right now," concluded LaPlante, "the taxpayers are inadvertently subsidizing the parking hogs. There is a major increase in new buildings, which require construction canopies that intrude upon the curb lane while they're being built, and will generate even more traffic when they open. The situation is getting worse."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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