Confessions of an ex-meter maid

The howls of indignation should start any time now that the city has announced that it expects residents to start shouldering some of the costs of parking enforcement. Earlier this month, the Sacramento City Council approved a program—still in its pilot phase—to charge residents of the city’s 19 residential parking-permit areas $15 per year for their visitor parking passes and to step up enforcement of the parking regulations. But howling about parking is nothing new.

I spent my first year with the Ames, Iowa, police department as a parking-enforcement officer, complete with a little blue-and-white three-wheeled Cushman cart and a “Lovely Rita” nickname. I was amazed at the ruthless determination with which so many otherwise reasonable and law-abiding citizens seek to “outwit, outplay and outlast” parking regulations as if a million dollars were at stake, rather than a $10 ticket. (Well, yes, the cost of the ticket has gone up since my tour of duty at the end of the 1980s, but so has the cost of everything else.)

There were the downtown workers, who watched out their windows for me to drive by and mark their tires with my yellow chalk stick and then raced downstairs with a spray bottle and a paper towel to wipe off the mark. Then there was the deli on Main Street that hung a bell for patrons to ring in warning whenever my Cushman was spotted (I liked to drive past there on breaks just to make music). And the sob stories! My favorite was the plumber who ran out as I was ticketing his van, swearing on his mother’s grave that he was fixing a leak in Cy’s Lounge. He had a pool cue in one hand and a cigarette in the other, so I cut him no slack.

I even had the privilege of giving a ticket to the president of the United States. Of course, he wasn’t president yet, just the son of the sitting vice-president, in town to help campaign during the Iowa caucuses. And he didn’t pay the ticket, either; it was voided by the police chief, who had a softer spot for sob stories—or maybe just a better sense of public relations—than I did.

The fact is everybody hates a parking ticket, and nobody wants to pay to park their car. Business owners want their customers to be able to find places to park easily, customers want free parking close to their destinations, workers want to be able to park all day, and residents want to have a spot close to their homes. That’s a lot of public interests to balance, and parking regulations are the only way to make it work.

So, I’m about to point out something that will make most folks hate me even more than they already do: The simple fact is that no one has a “right” to park on a public street—whether it’s the one in front of her house or the one in front of City Hall. That the city allows some parking on public thoroughfares is wonderful, but some folks seem to have translated that privilege into an entitlement.

For years, that sense of entitlement to free on-street parking wasn’t much of a problem. Fewer people, fewer cars and more available space made it work. But, like any situation in which a limited resource is shared by a group whose growth is potentially unlimited, there are no longer enough spaces available to meet the demand.

Where once each family owned a car, now each person does—and sometimes more than one. We’ve produced a culture in which each of us thinks she must have her own car, and then, of course, she thinks she’s entitled to a place to park it, because that’s the way it’s always been. The net result has been bad air; irritating commutes; and overcrowded, bicycle- and pedestrian-unfriendly streets. Out in the ’burbs, some areas don’t even have sidewalks; if you don’t drive, you aren’t going anywhere.

Such an auto-centric—and self-centered—perspective has led to this situation in which public transportation is the much-maligned and under-funded ugly stepsister of the car junkies and the mere thought of being asked to pay a fee for a parking permit leads to cries of “Unfair!”

The situation might be described as a “tragedy of the commons,” from the famous essay on population crises by Garrett Hardin: Whenever a finite common resource is shared by a potentially infinite group of individuals, the individuals will use more and more of the resource until the resource is depleted and unusable. That is, unless some sort of regulation is introduced.

The bottom line is that someone’s paying for this “free” parking, and it isn’t just the residents who make use of it. We’re all paying for it, and not only in the taxes that keep the streets in repair and the parking-enforcement officers patrolling, because those parking permits would be worthless without enforcement. We’re also paying for it in the continuing destruction of our air quality, the disintegration of our neighborhoods, the stressful commutes and the larger geopolitical implications associated with our continued reliance on personal transportation fueled by petroleum.

Free on-street parking encourages the use of personal automobiles and makes it easier for people to ignore the long-term effects of dependence on cars. It’s bad public policy to enable overuse of autos in an urban setting. With studies linking addiction to our cars with health risks ranging from increased obesity and heart disease to higher rates of asthma in urban children, why on earth would we want to make it easier for people to rely on them?

What’s more, continued reliance on personal vehicles by urban residents ignores the real advantage of urban living: Everything’s within walking distance. Not only is it healthier, but it also contributes to a socially vibrant, lower-crime community. Those of us who live “on the grid” are just a few minutes on foot from cafes, bookstores, theaters, shops and restaurants. Why should we bring the suburbs downtown by staying packed in our cars?

My partner and I moved downtown 10 months ago, mostly because our twice-daily 25-minute commute—a very short one by California standards—was stressful and a waste of time, especially when we often turned around and drove back downtown for our leisure activities.

Now, we walk to work and use a folding cart for grocery shopping. We’ve had measurable declines in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, my asthma has improved, and, best of all, I’m wearing clothes two sizes smaller than I was this time last year—with no dieting. I suspect that walking 11 blocks to Baskin-Robbins for ice cream and then walking home instead of hopping in a car to make the trip might have something to do with it.

We’ve begun to talk about getting rid of our car. We went down to a single vehicle about 10 years ago, mostly to save money; now, we’re finding we may not need one at all. In the last two weeks, we’ve moved ours three times—twice, it was simply to comply with the on-street parking rules for street cleaning and garbage pickup. Even if we rent a car once a month for necessary things, it would still cost less than the insurance, registration and maintenance of our personal vehicle.

But not everyone can live so close to where they also work and play. What about them? The last time SN&R commented on the parking downtown, we received some rather angry responses, many of them along the lines of “but we need cars.” And that’s not entirely untrue—in Sacramento, as in California as a whole, the false belief that resources were unlimited has led to urban and suburban sprawl and inadequate public transportation systems.

The solution isn’t to surrender to prior bad planning, though. It’s time, and more than time, to rethink the entire question of transportation. That means a real commitment to affordable, convenient and safe public transportation: buses that run both frequently and on time, with routes that actually will get riders where they need to go and with safe, clean, well-lit transfer points; light rail that is adequately patrolled by either transportation police or security to ensure the safety of passengers; bike lanes and sidewalks that are clear of obstructions, including yard waste; and a car-sharing system like San Francisco’s City CarShare ( to encourage people to give up their personal vehicles.

It’ll cost money—money that’s currently diverted to making it more convenient to use cars rather than less so. Maybe we can start by asking residents with parking permits to carry some of the weight for their own cars and shoulder at least the cost of the permit program.

One of the few things I remember from driver’s ed (other than that thing about turning into the skid) is that driving is a privilege, not a right. By extension, so is parking; homeowners own their homes, not the entire street. In any world, paying a fee for my residential parking permit is still going to be cheaper than renting a garage in the downtown area—or paying for the cost of the city’s maintenance of the section of street I’m parked on. Why should I get the space for free from the city?

The funny thing about people who gripe about parking regulations is that they never bother to ask why the regulations exist. One fellow in Ames owned a dress shop right across from the police station. On nice days, it was his habit to park his vintage Jaguar (deep maroon with tan leather upholstery) in the alley next to his shop, so it wouldn’t get door dings. I warned him about blocking the alley and explained the regulation; then I started ticketing him, and he started cursing me. One afternoon, there was a fire in the building next to his. He was nowhere to be found, so the firefighters just knocked out his windows and ran the hose through his car, where it sprayed water all over his interior. I was more than happy to leave a ticket under his windshield wiper as a coup de grâce, and he howled.