Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
September 2, 2009
This one is tricky. I’ve been reluctant to write it because I know it’s going to wind up in a place I don’t want to go. But I don’t think I’m allowed to duck that issue … so here we go.
It starts with paid parking.
It wasn’t all that long ago (1995, I believe) that paid parking was launched in Aspen.
Those of you who were around here then can probably remember the not inconsiderable public outrage at the idea. That outrage culminated in a “honk-in” at City Hall, when a sizeable mob spent an hour or so driving past City Hall and honking their horns to express their rage. It was high-spirited and very, very loud. And, of course, fruitless.
Still, paid parking was solidly grounded in good intentions.
It was designed to reduce traffic in town and on the highway in hopes of preserving the environment from automotive pollution.
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The idea was to make driving to town much more unpleasant by making it harder to park. (An approach that was perfectly in line with government’s primary talent, which is making people’s lives less pleasant.)
So far, so good (or, if you prefer, so bad).
But there were complications.
If it was expensive to park downtown, people would simply park in the surrounding residential areas, where parking was still free.
That would dilute the hassle of driving into town – and clog those residential streets, meaning people who lived there couldn’t park in front of their own homes.
So a strict two-hour limit was instituted in the residential areas, with parking cops putting chalk marks on tires to keep track of who’d parked where and for how long.
That led to the infamous “two-hour shuffle,” in which local employees would race out of work every two hours to move their cars.
And that’s how it went: Commuting employees were mildly miserable, moving their cars every two hours. And traffic into town either was or was not reduced – either because of or in spite of paid parking.
Oh yes, one more direct result: a rapidly growing parking bureaucracy dedicated to making people miserable and raking in cash for the government. Their motto: Pay up and shut up!
Over the years, things changed very little. Then, very recently – ka-wham! – massive change.
The rules for parking in the residential neighborhoods became much more complicated and much, much nastier: one visit per day, two-hour maximum, chalk marks on tires replaced with electronic scanning of license plates. So – park for 10 minutes on an errand and you’ve used up your one visit for that day. Sorry, you can’t come back downtown until tomorrow. Was your car “marked”? Can’t tell – it’s all in Big Brother’s computer.
Well, I guess that ought to work to (as they say) “disincentivize” driving into town.
Except. Except! They added another wrinkle: You can park in a residential area all day if you simply pay $7 at one of the new parking meters scattered throughout the area.
But … wait! Doesn’t that completely eliminate the original justification for the entire system?
The point was to make it unpleasant to drive into town – so people would take the bus or carpool or some damn thing – in order to preserve the environment. And the way to do that was to: 1. charge for parking in the center of town, and, 2. hassle the heck out of people who park in the surrounding residential areas by making them move their cars every two hours.
But now, suddenly, parking all day in a residential zone is absolutely fine – no threat to the environment! no problem clogging the streets! – as long as you pay seven bucks to the voracious parking department. (And that department has turned into a fierce, greedy little empire, untouchable as long as it continues to shovel cash into the city coffers.)
In other words, all those delightful, praiseworthy original goals have disappeared in pursuit of one simple thing: cash!
Or, perhaps, two simple things: 1. cash, 2. expanding government’s power to make people’s lives miserable.
So here’s our story:
We begin with an expansion of government power in order to achieve an undeniably wonderful goal. We wind up with a government bureaucracy that has nothing to do with the long-forgotten original goal and is focused entirely on its own power and raking in more and more money from increasingly unhappy citizens.
One quick conclusion: The city should either revamp the entire system or just flat admit that they’re greedy, power-crazed pigs who couldn’t care less about the environment. Either way’s OK by me.
So, why did I start this column by saying I didn’t like where it would lead?
Because, I am writing about a government program, started idealistically to solve a problem and how that program lost sight of its original goals and turned into a mindless grab for power and money.
And that – damn it – makes me think, unavoidably and very sadly, about health care reform.
Sure, the comparison’s a little far-fetched.
Paid parking was an attempt at social engineering – changing people’s behavior through legislation – to solve a minor local problem.
Health care reform is an attempt to solve a major national crisis.
Look at it this way: If people had been fighting over parking spaces in the streets of Aspen with frequent bloodshed and occasional fatalities – well, then the “parking crisis” would have risen to the level of America’s current “health care crisis.”
Dealing with parking then was a nice idea. Dealing with health care now is absolutely necessary.
I repeat: absolutely necessary. But still, with paid parking on my mind, I wonder how we can keep health care from disappearing down the same black hole.