The Parking Paradox

Reconsidering downtown's old magic bullet

In the '90s, in this space, I had a sort of running theme, not to say obsession, about downtown parking.

I could be a jerk about it sometimes. Many subjects leave plenty of room for debate, but observations that are simply and provably wrong deserve no mercy. We should delete them and move on with our lives.

At the time there was a standard truism that drove me up the wall: that downtown's main, or only, problem was not enough parking. And that downtown would never thrive until people had free, convenient parking.

"Oh, come on," I'd always say. Every day I parked all day for a few nickels and dimes at the 10-hour meters on Central, two blocks from Gay. No, it wasn't free, but it was less than I'd spend on Coca-Cola that day. I never did understand the complaints about the alleged lack of parking. I've driven around in some other cities, and as far as I knew Knoxville's downtown was one of the easiest downtowns for parking in America, easier and cheaper even than some smaller cities.

It just wasn't easy and free as, say, West Town, and some insisted it should be. But of course, if it were that easy, downtown wouldn't be recognizable as a downtown. If every attraction downtown had ample parking visible from its doors, we'd have to tear down more buildings, and pave even more square footage of former retail space. Downtown Knoxville would just be a redundant duplication of West Knoxville, distinguishable only by its geographical coordinates. You could program your GPS to alert you when you had arrived downtown.

Compounding the issue was a political conundrum I found bewildering. In this so-called conservative city, conservative Republican Knoxvillians were demanding that government, the taxpayers, should provide us with socialist free parking. Let those who can't afford insurance die of curable diseases, but, by God, never, never make us pay for a place to store our cars! It was the battle cry of a philosophy of obscure rational provenance. The right to leave our automobiles on a rectangle of pavement without paying anything for it was bestowed upon us by Jehovah Himself. It's right there in Vehiclitus. The taxpayer had a responsibility to provide it, and no free-market economy should dare impede it.

Anyway, in 20 years of driving downtown on weekdays, maybe half a dozen times was I unable to find a 10-hour meter that would accommodate my car, and on those occasions I just parked somewhere on the fringe.

Then, a few years ago when I no longer had to deal with getting kids to school in the morning, I stopped driving to work altogether. I rode my bike, or the bus. After a while it came to seem like a pretty weird idea, driving. To use a whole damn car, a ton of metal and rubber and glass to get one 180-lb. guy to his office. Never mind the atmosphere and the complications to U.S. foreign policy our driving demands, it was lots of money for me to pay in gasoline, tires, wear and tear. I began to wonder why anyone ever drove, and felt lucky and free that I didn't have to.

***

But things shift. On occasional weekdays since fall, a combination of reporting responsibilities, family duties, and speaking engagements obliged me, once a week or so, to drive a whole damn car downtown. The first thing I noticed was how many minutes of an automobile commuter's day are spent waiting at red lights. Have they gotten longer, this new century? On the bus I don't notice, because I'm either reading a paper or arguing some interesting minutiae with professors—they seem to be the only Knoxville professionals who like the bus. Bus conversations are often right interesting, and my stop arrives too soon, in the middle of a critical point.

Driving a car, however, you can't argue, you can't nap, you can't read. You just have to sit there conscious, though there's nothing visible through your windshield that obviously deserves your consciousness. You wait, staring at cars and pavement and dumb bumper stickers and a light that won't change, as your life slips away. You begin to feel passive and dull.

Riding a bus is a luxury not available to everybody. But I've been driving a car again lately, and realizing how the hoi polloi lives.

Now, after a few months of trying to park downtown for less than five bucks, I admit it. What everybody was saying in the '90s is finally true. In 2010, it really is hard to park cheap downtown on a weekday. The 10-hour spots I always depended on are still there, but if you don't get downtown before 8:30 a.m., you're unlikely to find one empty. The free parking I heard about opening up underneath the interstate still seems to be fenced behind a locked gate. Still to come, I'm promised.

I'm not cheap, exactly. If there were all-day parking for $2 or maybe $3, I'd jump on it, even if it involved a walk. As it is, though, you miss the $1.20 a day metered spaces and you're pretty much doomed to $5 parking. There's no longer a middle price. Maybe that's something for the city to consider. I suspect there's a significant population or us who are willing to pay $2-3 a day than to drive around and around looking for free spots.

Here's the weird thing, though. It's kind of the converse of the situation in the '90s. On weekdays, at least, it's harder to park cheap downtown now than it has been in my 25-year experience with it. Now that it really is hard, downtown is humming. Come downtown for lunch on a weekday, and yes, you'll have to pay to park your car. But then you may have to get in line with other people, who also paid to park their car, to get a seat at any of the 40-odd restaurants making a living downtown.

Parking was pretty easy when downtown was dull. But I'm not the nostalgic sort.