A short article in the Chicago Sun-Times last week got me thinking again about a local politics issue that's more interesting than it may seem: the rules for zoned residential parking.
What happened in Chicago was that the city started offering a special permit that would allow drivers from outside a neighborhood to park on streets otherwise zoned for locals -- anywhere in the city -- for an annual fee of $300.
The permits weren't available to everyone. You had to be in a business that forced you to move around a lot: real estate agents, social workers, home health providers, that sort of thing.
Contrary to what the city administration thought, the plan was a big flop. After a year's trial, only 53 of the permits had been sold.
But here's the interesting part: It wasn't the money that was the big problem, it was the hours. The permits were good only until 6 p.m. Potential permit-buyers complained that they needed freedom to park until at least 9 p.m., because that's when they did most of their visiting. Otherwise it wasn't worth the $300.
I know how trivial this sounds, but when you think about it, zoned parking raises interesting questions about individual and community rights. One's first instinct is that people who reside on a street should have almost unlimited authority to keep spaces along the street for themselves -- after all, they've paid to live there.
It's pretty clear-cut on streets like mine, in Arlington, Virginia, where a Metro station is a couple of blocks away and all the street spaces near my house would be taken up with commuters if zoned parking weren't enforced.
On the other hand, any community has some interest in the free access of visitors, especially those who are there to perform a requested service, such as health providers, but also those who are visiting friends or just touring around the neighborhood. In most places, homeowners can get one-day visitor passes, but often it's a hassle and they don't bother to do it.
So visitors who show up unexpectedly, even for the most legitimate reasons, find themselves with no place to park. And the dirty secret of zoned parking in many neighborhoods is that the houses all have driveways -- the owners want the street spaces for their second, third or fourth cars.
The bottom line is that people who spend lots of money to buy a house do have some right to protect scarce on-street parking spaces, especially in areas that adjoin busy commercial developments. But if you carry the zoned parking idea too far, you're essentially building a moat around your neighborhood -- which I would say is not in the community's overall interest. I think the failed experiment in Chicago is a small piece of evidence for that.