No More Meters: Salem’s Limitless Parking Decision Backfires

Salem, Ore. —

I don’t enjoy driving downtown. It’s awkward. It’s clumsy. There are too many lurching lane changes and strange direction shifts and one way grids. It creates headaches. The less time spent downtown driving around, the better. This is especially true when I’m looking for a place to park within the relative location of the place I want to go.

Recently, popular opinion in Salem motivated the Salem City Council to pass a law allowing free, limitless parking in the downtown area. Prior to this, motorists had to choose between parking in spaces with meters set up requiring payment to park and spaces with an enforced two hour limit, allowing time to conduct their business and move on. For many, this was a major inconvenience.

“Why should I have to pay to park downtown? What if I want to hang out for more than two hours. I have to leave the coffee shop where I was having a good time with friends to move my car. It’s just a parking space! Don’t they want business/nightlife/culture downtown?”

In a move that was shocking for some, Salem City Council heard these requests and acted on them, deciding to do away with any form of parking restriction. I remember the cheers of celebration – on Facebook – lauding the good decision and stating that this was the first smart thing the city government had done in a while. Unbeknownst to them, however, the council was suppressing knowing looks of disapproval – not because they’re mean curmudgeons who hate culture and people who like to park vehicles downtown – but instead because they had a sense of what was going to happen next.

And indeed, it did happen.

Suddenly, downtown businesses saw an excess of cars parked in front of their business. How strange, then, that the number of cars didn’t correspond with the number of people inside their stores and restaurants. The reason for this is simple – the people living in the apartments above these businesses finally had a convenient place where they can park their cars overnight.

Downtown parking is at a premium. People forget that, above almost every store, restaurant, and bar are apartments – apartments where people live. Those people also occasionally own cars.

Another issue arises in the form of jurors called to serve in the courts. There is a long bank of parking spaces along High Street in front of the Marion County Courthouse. Originally, potential jurors were encouraged to park in the Marion Parkade, a few blocks away from the courthouse. With the parking restrictions done away with, despite still being encouraged to use the Parkade, there is nothing stopping these jurors from parking on the same block.

Cue – no parking spaces.

Using this as a microcosm, the entire situation demonstrates what happens when democracy rules instead of a constitutionally-limited republic (which is what the United States is). In a democracy, the entire city opines on an issue without doing a full analysis of the risks and rewards. It “sounds like a good idea” and so we do it. Now, we’re scarce on parking spaces. Businesses are considering moving elsewhere from the downtown grid because they’re losing customers and storefront parking. How’s that for creating culture?

I don’t have a definitive answer on this problem. But clearly we haven’t reached the solution. I hope this encourages Salemites to weigh the issue before they lobby the Council for change.

I’ll be talking a little more about small government and constitutional republics (aren’t you so lucky) soon. You’ll like it.

FYI: The Statesman Journal also posted an article regarding concerns over downtown employees parking in front of businesses, an activity which remains illegal despite the other changes in parking law. Salem City Council may discuss this tonight at their meeting at City Hall.

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