Parking in the city is an emotional thing. People do all sorts of irrational stuff to hang on to a parking space once they find one. After snow storms in Boston, they shovel out their space, then “reserve” it by putting orange cones, lawn chairs, or other furniture in it so others can’t get the benefit of their hard work. Verbal and sometimes physical confrontations often result.
In New York City, street cleaning causes a commotion you have to see to believe. On designated days, people call in sick or arrive late to work because they have to move their cars from one side of the street to another to avoid having them towed as the street sweeper approaches.
From the perspective of a psychologist, it is amusing to see all the people emerging from their apartment buildings like a pack of lemmings to move their cars from one side of the street to the other. From the perspective of car owners, it’s like an adult version of musical chairs. No one wants to be caught out at the end of the game with no place to park.
City planners have been thinking for decades about what they could do with all the extra space if cars in the city were eliminated. Hundreds of acres of land that once was used to provide on-street parking could be put to a higher and better purpose — bicycle lanes, walking paths, new parks where children could play. People could walk or bike to work. They would be healthier and happier, live longer, and might actually meet their neighbors.
Irrational is the right word to describe the relationship between people and parking. Often, people choose not to move their cars except in case of dire emergency for fear they will lose their cherished parking space. Does it make any sense to buy a car, pay the car loan and insurance costs every month, and then not use it? Of course not, but lots of city dwellers do exactly that.
Walter Dresscher is an architect living in Amsterdam, one of the most crowded cities on the planet where parking on the street is difficult if not impossible. In most neighborhoods, parking is by permit only, or at least that is the way it is supposed to be. One day, Dresscher was forced to take his child’s stroller out into the street because the sidewalks were littered with parked cars.
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He tells The Guardian, “I looked at these cars and there were actually plants growing under them. They hadn’t moved for three or four weeks. I started thinking: does anyone know how many cars are used or not?” Dresscher decided to do something about the problem.
When Elon Musk gets such brainwaves, they result in things like Hyperloops and rockets that fly themselves back to the launching pad. In Dresscher’s case, the results were a bit more modest. He convinced the local council to try an experiment — give up your parking space for 6 months and do anything you want with the space. Make it into a mini-park with shrubs and flowers, turn it into an outdoor man cave. Create a space where children can actually play and dogs can romp.
But when the plan was presented in public meetings, Dresscher was astonished to find it was bitterly opposed by many residents. The idea of giving up a perfectly good parking space was a threat to their worldview in which a car is the focus of their entire existence. Dresscher says he heard language at some of those meetings that was out of character for the gentle folks who inhabit his city.
The local government told him that 25% of those cars used by residents were only driven about once a week. 60% actually used their cars less for fear they would lose their parking place. “This is a completely ridiculous situation,” Dresscher says. “I want to get rid of unused cars. The municipalities of Netherlands cannot keep going like this. One day they will come and take away that right, I am sure about that. But this is chance for people to change their behavior themselves.”
A spokesman for the local government says, “People get the opportunity to choose themselves what they want to do with the public space. They can park their cars in the street or start sharing cars and fill up the free parking spots for other purposes like green, bicycle parking or picnic tables.
“We want to see the effect of this approach. Will this bottom-up approach work, where people get a direct effect of their choice to get rid of their car, or is it still necessary to make top-down policy to manage the amount of parked cars in public spaces? It’s a project that, when it succeeds, can easily be scaled up to other streets and neighborhoods. We think that’s why this pilot is worth funding.”
Do you see what’s going on here? It’s the first zephyr in the coming storm that will sweep away the prevailing car culture that pervades people’s thinking around the world. More and more people are moving to cities — cities in which ride-hailing and ride-sharing models will soon overthrow the entire private car paradigm.
The good people of Amsterdam may not realize the full ramifications of the change in attitudes that is bearing down on them, but they sense an alteration in the wind. Like people everywhere, they will resist change with every fiber of their beings until it washes over them, sweeping away the old attitudes that preceded it.
The age of the private automobile is coming to an end. It may be 50 years before the inevitable happens, but it will come. Amsterdam is just slightly ahead of the curve.