The first reason we try not to drive in the city is one of stewardship. City driving is an inefficient use of gas and emits a lot of extra ozone-depleting gasses (more so than straight highway driving). Add in the myriad of one way streets, random street closings and diversions for bike races, marathons, and pick-your-ethnicity/sexuality pride parades, and it gets ever so much worse. So, in the interest of being a good steward of the limited oil resources, we try to avail ourselves of the public transportation system, our own two feet, or the numerous city taxis. We do attend a church that is an hour away; it is mostly highway driving, however, and constitutes the bulk of our yearly driving, so I feel less conflicted about it. We tried very hard for two years to find a church in the city that would be a healthy place to raise our family, including a non-English speaking one that is within walking distance of our house, but decided that for our family’s spiritual health, we needed to join ourselves to the very healthy English-speaking parish that is an hour away.
This is not our block, but the photo demonstrates the narrowness of the streets and how many different types of vehicles have to coexist. It is hard to see it, but the far left lane is also a parking lane, which makes driving these kinds of streets oh-so-fun.
The second reason we limit our driving is to do with parking. There are houses in the city that have attached garages, but they are relatively rare. It just so happens that a number of houses on our block have garages, but those houses are not row homes—they are spaces that were carriage houses or shops and were converted into homes later. Plus, I find that people who have garages are most inconsiderate of others in the neighborhood. There are a limited number of street parking spaces, made more limited by the existence of garages, which mean that the space in front of the garage can only be parked in by the owner, and yet many garage-owners persist in taking up one or more regular parking spots in the neighborhood because they can’t be bothered to use their garage for its intended purpose. And they seem to be fond of large vehicles that take up a space and a half, or worse, park directly on the sidewalk (illegally, of course) and block the walkway. But I’m not bitter or anything. I do recognize that our neighborhood is one of the more frustrating neighborhoods to park in—there are other parts of the city that are easier. South Philly and West Philly, for example, have easier parking, but also have more urban blight, so it is a trade off.
Most people have to park their cars on the street, in paid parking spaces, or in paid lots. Paid parking spots are a pretty sweet deal because it is your spot forever and always, and no one can take it from you. You can come and go at whatever hour of the day you want and be sure that your spot will still be there when you return. The down side is that these spots can cost up to $500 per month. Paid lots have the same problem. I heard recently about one paid lot that was associated with the Ritz Carlton residences near City Hall—if you want to pay for a parking spot in the apartment building, you’d better be prepared to cough up $75,000 per year. Yes, you read that right. Street parking is the cheapest option, since you can get a parking permit for the city zone that you live in for about $50 per year, but then you are at the mercy whatever happens to be available in your particular zone. In our case, our parking zone is about 10 blocks wide and 15 blocks long, so sometimes we have to park quite far away from our house. There is street parking on our block, but there are a grand total of 8 legal parking spots on our block, and people who get them tend not to move their cars very often. (There are about 10 houses on each side of the block, by the way). Every once in a great while we can get a spot in front of our house, but it is pretty rare. We usually can find something within a block or so of the house, but we’ve had to learn some tricks to do so.
The first trick is time of day—there are usually parking spots within a block or so of the house after the morning rush and before 3:00 p.m. Before the morning rush, people are still parked from the night before, and after 3:00 p.m., people are starting to come home, so parking gets considerably more complicated. After 6:00 p.m., it is positively frustrating. I don’t take the car out in the evening if I can avoid it. There was a period of time when I was commuting an hour back and forth to Delaware for my PhD program, and there was always one day per week that I didn’t get back to the city until 11:00 p.m. At that hour, I often drove around for an hour or more trying to find a parking spot. Occasionally I had to settle for a less-than-legal spot, and then get up super early the next morning to move the car before the parking police could ticket me.
Now that we have children, the parking situation is even more complicated, since only one of them is mobile. So if I choose to take the kids somewhere in the car during the day, I have to walk them the block or so to the car, then get everyone strapped in, drive to wherever we are going, then drive back, find parking again, unstrap everyone and walk however far it is back to the house. When my husband and I are in the car together, we can tag team, where one of us gets the kids out at the house and takes them in, while the other person goes to find parking, but this rarely works for day-to-day activities. This is why we do most of our grocery shopping on foot rather than by car. Add in several bags of groceries and gallons of milk to the block or so that you have to walk with one mobile and one non-mobile child and it is quite impossible. Our neighbor across the street has garage, and has graciously given us permission to temporarily park on the sidewalk in front of her garage when we have to unload a lot of stuff, but it is a wearisome task to do with regularity, because even after unloading, I still have to find a parking spot and get the kids back home.
The other reality of parking in the city is that even if you can find parking where you live, you probably won’t be able to find easy parking wherever you are going. There are no large free parking lots here, just lots of parallel street parking spots (I’ve gotten so good at parallel parking now!) Hospitals have parking lots, but they aren’t always open during the wee hours of the night. I remember needing to go to the hospital in the middle of the night with one of my pregnancies, and the garage was closed, and there was no street parking to be had at that hour. I was so frustrated because it was a bit of an emergency and there was no where to go with my car! I did get lucky in the end as someone on a parallel spot near the hospital entrance pulled out as I was circling in increasing desperation, but ever since then, we’ve taken cabs to that part of the city when the bus won’t cut it.
The ugly truth is that people drive more when they don’t have to pay to park their cars. (There is an excellent book out called The High Cost of Free Parking on this very topic). If we as a society are going to be serious about addressing overconsumption of limited resources, then we have to address the issue of free parking and all the hidden ways that driving is subsidized. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I have a lot of high ideals about good stewardship and making good use of public transit where available, but if parking were easier, I probably would drive a bit more than I do. I also think that public transit is often unnecessarily difficult in this city, forcing people to drive who would otherwise be inclined to take the bus or train.
Having said all that, the parking situation has forced me to stick with my ideals. I no longer casually jump in my car to make a five minute trip to the convenience store, or just to pick up one thing at a store. (I do make plenty of unnecessary trips on foot, however!) Every time I take the car out, I have to ask myself, is this trip really necessary? It is a good check on my wants and desires, and also pushes me to think outside the box to get from point A to point B. And it certainly is good for the waistline. J