Car Troubles: 15 Ways to Push Philadelphians Out of Their Cars

Nieuwmarkt in the center of Amsterdam without, with, without the car.

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Earlier this week I wrote about some of the ways cars actually decrease our quality of life as Philadelphians. Jon has also written about how much money they take out of our wallets. I also mentioned that there are two ways to form public policy, through incentives (carrots) or punitive means (sticks). This post focuses on the punitive and joins others calling for driving to be more difficult.

If we look at why cars are much less dominant in the centers of European cities, it’s because the 70s were a turning point in car culture for Europe. The oil crises made most northern European cities understand that cars consumed lots of fuel, took up lots of space and in the case of the Netherlands, were killing hundreds of cyclists every year, often children. Many began giving cars less room in the public space and saw livability in their cities bloom. It can and has started to happen here but more political leadership is needed. Too many quality of life issues depend on being more punitive towards car ownership. So let’s break out the sticks!

Bicycle Protests of the 1970s. More space, less death.
Children were often the victims of traffic violence so parents protested with their children.

15 Ways to Push Philadelphians out of their Cars

1) Zone ALL streets for permit parking zones: Permit parking guarantees two important things: car insurance and proper vehicle registration. Philadelphia has a big problem with uninsured motorists. This affects everyone since it encourages reckless behavior by the uninsured, like fleeing the scene of accident. Run away and you don’t have to pay. In turn this drives up the cost of insurance. We are number 2 in the country behind Detroit. The Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) requires proof of insurance and local registration to issue a permit. Zoning ALL streets to require residential permits also gets the city out of the business of “free parking.” There is a cost associated to taking public property and allowing someone to rent it for the storage of their private automobile. Build the zones with long hourly timeframes (4 hours, 8 hours) if you need to. Exempt weekends if you need to. But do require all residents to register their car with the PPA. If guests come from out of town, well PPA has day permits for that. Uninsured motorists are a public safety threat that we have a way of mitigating through the PPA.

2) Cap & Trade of parking permits. Jon has written about this before at Next City and at This Old City. Parking, like owning a car, is a luxury not a right. $35 a year for the rental of public property for private automobile storage is scandalously cheap. This is less than a tank of gas. Each open air parking space costs us about 15,000 dollars to construct. (See Video below) Cap & Trade would allow neighbors to negotiate what a space is worth to them. 

3) New gas revenue. Pennsylvania avoided doomsday budgeting for an already strained public transit system by agreeing to new sources of revenue to fund all transportation, from car, to bus, to train, bike and pedestrian. One of these sources was via raising state tax on gasoline. Though it may require some maneuvering in Harrisburg, why shouldn’t Philadelphia levy a greater tax on gasoline and funnel it into transit funding? Expand service, clean and renovate more stations, expand lines to the Navy Yard and King of Prussia. Just get it over with and raise taxes to do it. Seattle did it. Denver did it. Madrid does it frequently. Step it up.

4) Property taxing cars. Why are we not taxing property that uses the public space for storage? The state of Virginia, more conservative than PA, taxes vehicles. Philadelphia could do the same based off a mix of the Kelly blue book value and the size of the vehicle. The Kelly blue book value would be important for lower income people who own cars. An older/cheaper car would mean less taxes paid. The size of the car is also important. The shorter the car the less public space it consumes. This means less money to be paid for renting the public space. Smart cars, which can perpendicularly park, pay the least. 

Smart Car Genius: Perpendicular Parking on 21st Street!

5) Removal of parking minimums: zoning code should not dictate the amount of parking a developer must provide. Parking needs vary too much by neighborhood to set a common standard. Indoor parking as part of a building costs tens of thousands per spot. That raises the cost of the project for a developer, in turn raising the cost of building, housing, etc. and potentially lowering the quality of the building with cheaper quality and finishes to compensate. In Seattle it's costing renters $246 per month. Other places are experiencing similar cost increases. 

6) Optional blacklisting of on street parking permits for new buildings. Ever attended a community meeting or read coverage of a real estate project meeting opposition because not enough parking was provided? There’s a simple fix for that. If a developer wishes to opt out of providing parking let him (see #5). If the neighborhood complains that new residents will flood into “their” street parking, let him opt his project out of the PPA completely by allowing option to register the building on PPA blacklist. If a resident, who must show proof of local registration and insurance would try to obtain a street permit at the blacklisted address, then they are refused. This allows for greater density in new building projects. Greater density means more vibrant commercial corridors, more people paying taxes and lower housing costs.

7) Parking tax: levy it on people parking in a private lot. We have SEPTA, PATCO, taxis, bikes, car share and street parking. Use them or pay the price. Pittsburgh’s is 40%.

8) Car-free weekends are being done in other cities. Start with one weekend a year where private driving is prohibited in certain parts of the city. Park(ing) Day would be a nice day to debut this.

9) Zero parking funding for state-funded building projects. Mentioning how much covered and street parking costs, why are we subsidizing car drivers as America’s Greenest City?

10) Better PPD enforcement of moving violations: the comments section of my last “carrot” based post lit up on this topic, but this is a “stick” item. Philly PPD does a really bad job at enforcing traffic laws. The red light slide, the beeping behind you when you don’t go a millisecond after the light turns green, and the sidewalk biking can all be solved with better policing. We’re leaving millions on the table at a greater risk of life and limb.

11) Bus-only lane enforcement à la New York. We have Bus Only lanes in Center City on Chestnut and Walnut that we don’t enforce. New York does this with sophisticated cameras. 

12) Variable rate parking à la San Francisco. Meters there are sophisticated enough to vary their pricing depending on time of day and demand so as to keep a predetermined percentage of spots open. More spots open means less circling by cars searching for spaces. This means less traffic and less pollution.

13) Garage penalties. Street front garages cause all sorts of problems. They usually take out a street space (reducing revenue). They also deaden a street. If you’re a pedestrian would you rather walk by a home with lights on in the first story or a blank garage wall. Both of these problems can have fees associated to them.

Dullness along Carpenter St. thanks to Garages

14) Better enforcement of existing parking regulation. The PPA is not really that great at enforcing lots of other rules besides parking meters and parking zones. Those big Xs on the road are not to be parked in for safety reasons. They are most often there to preserve a view so that when drivers pull out they can see the lane they are intruding into. PPA, please start ticketing more.

Poor PPA Enforcement Abounds. The X is there for a reason.

15) Sell off city owned lots. Jon just wrote about this. It's costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Winning back the public space for people means having a thoughtful policy response on cars. Sticks may not be popular, but that doesn't mean they aren't worth weilding.

Today bikes rule. This is bicycle facility outside of Centraal Station in Amsterdam. +30% of all trips are taken by bike. Imagine a similar view near 30th St or Market East.
Last Updated: Friday, 04 April 2014 @ 14.50
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geoff's picture Geoff Kees Thompson Founder + Urban Planner Website: About the Author:

Other than time away from Philly studying his masters in Urban Planning in the Netherlands, Geoff has lived here since 2005. He founded This Old City to advocate for better public space as a means to economic development, improved public health, lower crime and a more environmentally sustainable future. He currently sits on the Executive Board of SOSNA and is the head volunteer gardener for Saint Mark's Church at 1625 Locust Street.


He is also Chair of The 5th Square PAC, an organization committed to voter education and the funding of progressive urbanist candidates for Philadelphia's future. 


Follow This Old City on Twitter @thisoldcity and Facebook or Geoff individually @geoffkees

Follow The 5th Square on Twitter @5thsq and Facebook