The Boston Globe’s Brian McGrory had a humorous, well-written column yesterday titled “Mayor Menino’s War On Cars”.  The immediate cause of the column was Boston’s announcement of a program to turn curbside parking spaces into “parklets”—an idea pioneered in San Francisco (bleeding-heart liberal social engineering alert!) and implemented in New York two years ago by Mayor Mike Bloomberg (ditto!).

As The Globe reported last week,  “City planners are refining a pilot program to turn parking spaces here and in three other neighborhoods into “parklets” – petite, three-season patios, with benches and planters atop platforms built flush with the sidewalk….

They are part of the growing movement to reclaim urban space for pedestrians and bicyclists and promote public transit. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has proclaimed “the car is no longer king,” citing the environmental, aesthetic, and health benefits.

It remains to be seen how willingly Bostonians, known for fiercely coveting and protecting their parking spots, receive the parklets.”

McGrory (not technically a Bostonian, but when the city limits only include a quarter of the metropolitan population you can’t be too picky)  has thought about it, walked around downtown and come to his conclusion: “Our mayor has gone off the deep end….  By my admittedly inexact count, and please don’t hold me to this precise number, there are a grand total of six unrestricted parking spaces remaining on city streets these days, and about 3,000 cars circling the block waiting for them to open up. Funny part is, the owners of the parked cars are sitting in them sending text messages to friends saying they can’t believe the parking space they found.”

Parklets are easy to mock; even the name sounds silly.  But McGrory is correct in seeing this as another small example of the dethroning of the automobile in American society.

However, the fact that downtown Boston’s on-street parking spaces are all occupied isn’t a signal that the city needs more on-street parking.  It’s a signal that on-street parking is underpriced.

If it costs, as McGrory points out, over $11 an hour to park at an off-street parking garage in downtown Boston, then charging less than $1/hour for the more conveniently located on-street parking makes no economic sense.  (Let alone the unpriced externality of the carbon emissions generated by all those cars circling the block.)

For decades, American public policy has, in ways large and small, effectively placed the gasoline-powered automobile in a place of privilege.  Oil production is subsidized, gasoline taxes are kept low, poisonous emissions are under-regulated and under-priced, zoning and civil engineering codes are written with a preference for individual car ownership.

It’s taken decades to “enthrone” the automobile.  It will take decades to “dethrone” the automobile.  In the big picture, a handful (San Francisco currently has 30) of “parklets” aren’t going to make a difference.  But the fact that we’re even talking about parklets is one sign among many of the steady erosion of the automobile’s privileged place in American society.

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