It’s time for Chicago to get rid of the parasitic parking meter contract – streetsblog Chicago
When former Mayor Richard M. Daley forced passage of the contract that sold Chicago’s parking meters towards the end of his administration in 2008, he made one of the worst deals for Chicago. The contract, which outsourced the operational responsibilities and revenue rights of Chicago’s pay parking lot to private investors represented by Morgan Stanley for a period of 75 years, has since been hated. Drivers hated meter rate increases. Everyone would have preferred parking revenues to stay with the city. Hating the business these days is like eating hot dogs without ketchup: it’s part of the city’s cultural heritage.
The contract was particularly frustrating for advocates of sustainable transport. One particularly puzzling clause dictates that the number of measured points remains fixed at just above 30,000 throughout the city. In other words, Chicago has very limited control over significant portions of its streetscape, as it has to maintain these metered parking spaces, and all so that some investors can easily take advantage of them.
This often complicates or blocks efforts to install sturdy bus or bicycle lanes, not to mention the pedestrian streets. If the metered spaces are removed to make room for more productive uses of the right-of-way, Chicago must either create new metered spaces elsewhere or pay a fee to the dealer.
The agreement was not written in favor of the city. Those who accepted his 75-year term ignored the fact that unknown, significant changes in mobility would almost certainly occur during his tenure. Major changes in the way people get around – carpooling and bike sharing, for example – have already happened in the thirteen years since the deal was signed.
The contract was also written to be particularly difficult to break. But we must not give up hope of withdrawing from the deal, because there is still a nuclear option: we can just ignore it.
Recently, I argued that Chicago needs to establish a parking management office in order to better utilize and plan the city’s parking assets. This was prompted by reports that authorities wish to sell several city-owned parking lots on the north and northwest sides. I argued that these lots provide an opportunity to relocate some paid off-street parking to key locations in order to make the streets more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. If this office existed, more such opportunities would be identified. And this department would help the city overcome some of the more restrictive aspects of the deal.
Certainly, a parking management office is a flawed solution. Having such a service is important regardless of who controls the city’s paid parking rights, but any potential solution to the many restrictions in the contract will fail as long as the city tries to comply with the agreement.
The contract was designed to be a mechanism to channel profits to private interests by exploiting a public resource. This is fundamentally unacceptable. The city can neither maintain the status quo nor afford to jump through hoops for another six decades. It would be cheaper and less painful to just break the deal.
This is not to say that there are no workarounds that could degrade the contract somewhat. In preparing to write this article, I spent a lot of time researching these options. I made field observations of the streets of the city. I reviewed the design guidelines for parking, street layout, and bike and bus lanes. I conducted interviews for another planned article that was sidelined by the pandemic. I dug deep into the case itself.
These workarounds fall into two categories: design and policy. The design solutions are pretty straightforward. They are in fact used to a small extent at a strategic location. As mentioned above, solutions include moving the metered parking location from main streets to nearby side streets or elsewhere in the neighborhood. And it sort of works.
Chicago has used this strategy in a few places to make more space for people on the main streets. The new protected bike lanes on Milwaukee Avenue between Western and California Avenue are one example. This approach has also been used on Argyle Street in Uptown when part of the parking lot needed to be removed to create a pedestrian-friendly ‘shared street’. This method could allow the pedestrianization of major streets like Clark through Andersonville and portions of Broadway in Lakeview East.
The second approach is that of political solutions. The city could attempt to renegotiate a reduction in the required number of metered parking spaces by changing the formula used to calculate the system value (which is used to determine annual revenue targets and meter rates) or by using new ones. methods of charging tariffs. This includes options such as evaluating the system by other measures (such as the value of edge space and not spaces), the use of variable price parking (prices change depending on the request) or the use of other income entirely such as the fees charged for using the parking spaces for the trip – hail or delivery services.
The problem remains that these workarounds are just that: workarounds. These are not bad solutions in and of themselves. They could be very valuable tools for street design and parking management if the city had full control of its parking meter. Design solutions should certainly be pursued more aggressively.
But as long as the city aims to work under the contract, we recognize the legitimacy of the deal, and we should not prioritize private interests over public interests. This leaves the citizens to bear all the costs, while the investors profit. Chicago shouldn’t tolerate any of these things. We all know it was a bad deal. We all know Daley fucked us. Let’s throw our arms up and do what’s best, and what we finally want to do, and break the deal.
Giving up the contract would likely cause pain in Chicago. It would almost certainly result in a lawsuit. And that would likely force the city to pay generously as part of a court settlement. But we should really ask ourselves what is wrong? If we took over the meters, this income would be a way to pay off the debt. It took less than 15 years for investors to start making profits on their investments. Why shouldn’t the city plan the same?
In addition, Chicago has options to challenge the contract. The city should explore the use of legal tools like its reserved powers or force majeure, or a greater irresistible force that prevents someone from performing a contract, to attack its underlying structure. Using the former, the city can argue that it needs full control over what is now on-street metered parking to effectively exercise its right and responsibility to manage traffic. Regarding the latter, if there has ever been a force majeure it is the climate crisis. There is no doubt that transport is a major contributor to climate change and the city must be able to act accordingly to reduce associated emissions. It requires breaking the contract.
Chicago could also force arbitration or simply ignore the deal. It’s not as if Chicago has never taken such bold steps before. I find it incredibly ironic that the town hall has been saying for years that we are stuck with the contract, while the mayor who forced it is equally famous for literally destroying an airport in the dark of night, because he wanted it. So why not do the same with the parking meter offer?
And in the absence of these working solutions (or one of the private lawsuits challenging it), the city must start to act as if it has complete control over paid parking. Remove it. Enlarge sidewalks. Install cycle paths. Build bus lanes. Let the investors continue. They would probably settle down anyway. And it’s not as if the city isn’t already paying millions of dollars in settlements for police abuse cases every year. Contrary to police regulations, there would be a sustainable source of income to pay for the regulations of parking meter contracts.
Even if investors don’t settle and take the case to court, this process will last for some time during which the city may continue to build alternative transportation infrastructure. Let Morgan Stanley try to pull it out once it’s built.
While it’s heartwarming to know that the city may attempt to defeat the deal through design and policy, none of this is a lasting solution until the city has full control over the city. one of its most important assets. Roadside space and metered parking are incredibly valuable, and the city must be able to fully control it if it is to improve traffic flow and encourage alternatives to driving. City Hall may not recognize it now, but elections may change the math.