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The Parkers

Monday, November 16

I was born in Chicago, grew up in Chicago and therefore, wherever it is I live, I still call Chicago home. The following post is about Chicago, but easily applies to anywhere in the Union.

We can all agree, Chicago's parking situation is the worst in the country. How did we get here?

When parking meters were invented in the 1930's, municipalities (Chicago included) banned their use, as most considered the meter's usage would constitute "selling something to the public that we already own," the streets of our cities.

After their adoption in Oklahoma City, OK was allowed by their city council as a way to "break congestion" on high traffic streets, other cities bought in under the idea of civic betterment, or keeping roadways clear and safe, as evidenced by this 40-second clip about the instillation of the meter.

The first meters were relatively inexpensive, but because parking anywhere else was free, the idea worked well in clearing out those busy thoroughfares in cities that adopted the meter program. This was the normal state of affairs, using a low-cost deterrent, in high traffic areas, to help motorist's move more freely when visiting their Main Street. The effect was largely psychological for the first 30 years of the program, to the point of their being nobody specifically tasked with collecting the (few) monies from the parking apparatus.

The "Car Crazy" 1950's did not impact this, as there was a subsequent boom in the establishment of suburbs, therefore negating the congestion in the downtown metropolitan areas of most cities at the time.

The 1960's did, however, bring about the introduction of the all-female Meter-Maid brigade, tasked with the full-time job of collecting the revenue from the parking poles in the largest of cities, as more and more Americans found themselves moving to suburbs to avert the civil discord the encountered in the downtown areas on the way to and from work each day. This living there/working here arrangement meant untold scores of cars clogging the highways during rush hour each day and a mad scramble for spots to park the cars, once the destination was reached.

It was not unfamiliar to see cars on the curb or at the corner, alleys choked with automobiles parked in any fashion and even some of the city's park greenery space used as impromptu parking lots. Chicago answered this problem swiftly and headily.

Mayor Richard J. (Daddy) Daley was one of the few mayors in America that decided not to surrender his downtown to "flight," and so instituted a wide-ranging program in the late 1960's to deal with it's upkeep, street parking would become a part of this campaign of re-invention.

Daley called for the instillation of meters along all of Chicago's "critical through-ways" (deemed so not for their residential density, but for the amount of commerce that flowed along them), tripled the amount of Meter-Maids on the City payroll, expanded police power over vehicles (fines and towing) and banned all parking in the alleys of the city's downtown area (bordered by Roosevelt, Wacker, Desplaines and Columbus Avenues).

This was the parking plan for the City of Chicago up until the late 1980's, largely driven towards breaking congestion and keeping the city's main commercial areas free of congestion so that business could flow unimpeded. This flew in the face of a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling (Britt v. Wilmington, 236 N.C. 446, 73 S.E.2d 289) which stated:

Streets of a municipality are provided for public use. A city board has no valid
authority to rent, lease or let a parking space on the streets to an individual
motorist 'for a fee' or to charge a rate or toll therefor. Much less may it
lease or let the whole system of on-street parking meters for operation by a
private corporation or individual.

But most considered it, rightly, in the public good, since revenues were used to upkeep streets and repair curbs, a serious problem at the time.

In 1989, Richard M. (Sonny) Daley would be elected, by the slimmest of margins, Mayor of the City of Chicago, and how parking was viewed by the city government would shift, radically, in a new direction.

Almost immediately after Daley taking office, the city would condemn (and purchase) a number of buildings in the downtown area, then turn them over to private interests for little or no profit to the city, regardless of their being located in the (at the time) best business district in the United States. Overnight, work began at tearing these structures down to build new office and retail structures, all with a bonus feature, new to the city, multi-level parking structures.

Next, the Daley administration moved to make owning multiple parking tickets a felony, which failed miserably. In it's place, he convinced a split City Council to approve suspending the license of those with more than 10 out-standing parking fines (later removed by the state of Illinois and subsequently re-instated in the late-1990's).

By 1992, with the newly-built multi-level parking structures completed, the Daley Administration started restricting more and more areas of parking in the area surrounding the lots. First on one side of Michigan Ave, Dearborn, Clark and Wacker, then the other as well. Soon parking along Lake, Randolph, Washington, Monroe, Adams, Jackson and Van Buren would be prohibited, leaving only Wabash, with it's many jewelers, furriers and legal firms, untouched. If you wanted to park while you worked or shopped in the Loop, you now had no choice but to head to the convenient new parking structures.

Since so many Chicagoans rebelled by parking their cars on the streets, hazard lights flashing as they ran their errand, the Administration needed a new weapon to deter said behavior. This came, three-fold, with the passing of the laws for: doubling your fine after 60 days (1993), the Denver Boot introduction (1993) and the city creating an partnership with auto auctioneers, by which to sell cars that owed (at the time) in excess of $1000 and were impounded beyond 30 days.

Lastly, the 1995 budget for the City of Chicago shows an unusually large increase in expenditures for "parking enforcement," as well as a tremendous spike in expected revenues. The city purchased six times the amount of tow trucks it previously owned, started giving quotas to their foot patrolman for ticket writing, expanded the automobile Pound-system, increased fees at all extant parking meters, increased fines for expired meters, increased the "storage" fees at impound centers, added a towing fee (even though the task is done by city workers, which is kind of like being charged a "policeman's fee" when getting a speeding ticket) and, for the first time in 20 years, added parking meters and parking restrictions to residential areas that had no ties to commercial well-being or congestion.

Chicagoans were told this was not meant to impact the citizenry, but instead, "in preparation" for the upcoming Democratic National Convention of 1996 (another reason to breathe a sigh of relief for the Olympic fiasco blowing up). It took all of six months for city residents to have their worst fears realized, the parking coup was now complete. The City of Chicago no longer viewed parking as a tool to improve the flow of traffic in business districts. Parking, henceforth, would be treated as a revenue production arm of the City government.

Since getting all this revenue-grab infrastructure in place in 1996, the Daley Administration:

  • Moved to become the first city in America to sell late parking fines to second-tier credit functions (debt-collection companies), thus allowing parking tickets to go on credit reports. This meant, for the first time ever, money that was not borrowed, and never changed hands in any fashion, became a financial (debt) product in it's afterlife (after the non-payment).

  • Increased the number of "No Parking" and "Tow Away" zones outside of the central business district.

  • Opened multi-level parking structures in neighborhoods across the city.

  • Increased fees and fines seven times.

  • Shortened the doubling of unpaid fines from 60 days to 30 days.

  • Hired a ticket-writing brigade that enforces the spaces on the few streets where they are available.

  • Introduced neighborhood parking permits, which granted the streets (city property) as a right to those that owned homes (private property) by proxy.

  • Recently, and illegally (see this article), became the first city in America to sell it's civic parking system to a private entity.

Meanwhile, the rates for parking in these off-street parking facilities have become prohibitively expensive. $20 for the first hour is not unusual. So there are fewer places to park and costs more when you do. We have not even included the tens of millions of dollars in revenue from red light cameras, installed four years ago.

All of this in an era of simultaneous, yearly budget cuts and rate increases on the public transportation system that many residents are forced to use, by Daley and team.

Daley has declared war on our wallet and we have been an unaware participant in this battle that has seized upon the assets of our fair city, sold them to the highest bidder and made life for all citizens and visitors of our fair city miserable.

And even these transgressions don't begin to explain his latest idea of selling off our share of one of the largest supplies of freshwater in America, Lake Michigan and our other waterways.

Incidentally,the first parking ticket went ever issued went to a Reverend, for an expired meter. He was able to beat the charge in court, explaining that he had gone into a nearby store to get change for the device. This prompted cities like Cincinnati to adopt, until this day, meters that give you ten minutes for free at the push of a button, so as motorists are given time to acquire the appropriate change to pay the meters.

I fear that in the case of Chicago,a Reverend won't do, we may need to seek his superior.



2009 ·clean needles by TNB