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Parking up the wrong tree?

JimStasiowskiThere are renowned debating societies in the Netherlands, in Greece and at Oxford in England, but the best debates of all happen in the newsrooms of U.S. newspapers.

Just such a debate – short but substantive and spirited – took place last week in the pale-yellow-walled, raw-beam-ceilinged newsroom of the Idaho Business Review.

For high drama, you may prefer the back-and-forth in the Netherlands or Greece or Oxford, but for the type of challenging, be-armed-with-a-cogent-argument-or-be-left-behind thinking, our modest moment of trying to make sense of a sticky local topic was typical of what goes on before a story is printed.

Jennifer Gonzalez, a hard-charging reporter, was covering a Boise proposal to reduce the number of parking spaces required for multifamily housing projects. Behind the city’s proposal is the thought that if parking-space minimums were reduced, residents would be motivated to forsake their cars and walk, bike or use public transportation to get around town.

Logically, developers and contractors should dislike parking requirements, because developers and contractors like to use the maximum amount of their space for revenue-producers (apartment or condo units) and not so much on such amenities as parking lots, which are utilitarian but don’t make for enticing sales brochures.

So the city’s proposal to reduce the number of required spaces seemed the kind of change every developer would embrace.

Not so. Two of them, plus a few other people who would be affected by the change, said that less parking would make projects less attractive to potential tenants.

But that wasn’t what triggered the newsroom debate. Instead, this question arose: Should governments use their lawmaking power to effect societal change?

One person said: “How about smoking?”

That argument went this way: Smoking still would be a widespread societal scourge if it had not been for government intervention, starting with getting rid of TV advertising of cigarettes up to the current restrictions that have reduced places people may smoke to the equivalent of remote, uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

But the counterargument was: There is a distinction between restrictions on smoking and using a lack of parking spaces to induce people to walk, bike or ride a bus.

Restrictions on smoking are a direct assault on a practice that surely causes disease and death; shrinking the amount of parking is an indirect inducement to seek transportation other than by car, and although cars cause injuries and death, so do walking, biking and riding a bus.

The debate ended without agreement among the staff members, but the thinking it prompted continued even after the parking story appeared in the Jan. 31 edition.

One of the story’s sources, Amy Medica, is the community manager for an apartment complex in southwest Boise. Medica told Gonzalez that 80 percent of prospective tenants ask immediately about the availability of parking. Medica added: “Very few people around here walk or rely on public transportation because of our location and the fact we aren’t downtown.”

A more comprehensive Boise public transportation system would be an example of a direct assault on society’s reliance on the passenger car.

But let’s take the smoking-parking debate one step further.

On Jan. 11, 1964, 50 years ago last month, then-U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry issued the seminal report linking cigarette smoking to lung cancer and probably heart disease. The most recent estimate is that 18 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes, whereas when Terry’s report came out, that number was 42 percent.

In 50 years of intense anti-smoking education, advertising and government prohibitions, the rate of smoking has dropped 24 percentage points. Progress, yes, but is that success, when 18 percent of adults smoke in our educated, media-saturated, treating-smokers-like-outcasts society?

The push toward forsaking the automobile isn’t even close to 50 years old, and people’s addiction to their cars is much stronger than the addiction to nicotine, if only because for many people, a private vehicle is the only way to get to work, to the grocery store, to vital appointments. Cigarettes can be the reason you need to see the doctor, but they won’t get you there.

In pushing toward limiting our reliance on our private vehicles, the city is showing foresight, but it also is taking a questionable approach and aiming at the wrong people: those who can afford only small apartments away from the city core.

The Boise resident who lives or works far from bus stops may be an environmentalist, may wish to cut back on those pollution-spewing car trips, may ardently desire to reward her children with a greener, cleaner world.

But after putting in a full day of work, after stopping at the store for groceries, after picking up her dry cleaning, as she is driving back to her apartment, her foresight extends only as far as one simple reward: a parking space.

Jim Stasiowski is writing coach for The Dolan Company, Idaho Business Review’s parent.

About Jim Stasiowski