In 1961, when Mayor Richardson Dilworth tried to mess with parking, some South Philadelphia residents pelted him with rocks. Not our best moment, but that’s how seriously some drivers take the issue of where to put their cars. But it’s 60 years later and despite downtown’s major evolution — and growing environmental concerns — Philly’s parking wars persist.
Though Mayor Kenney’s budget allows $62 million for street sweeping, a positive move, Philly’s parking warriors managed to delay his campaign promise until 2021 because they don’t want to move their cars once a month. This underscores the reluctance City Hall has to move forward when it comes to any moves tied to cars. Further evidence: City Council wants to slash the parking tax, a handout to wealthy parking garage magnates that incentives traffic and congestion. And streeteries, one of the city’s best innovations during the pandemic, run the risk of being dismantled if City Hall reverts to the cumbersome process of the past.
The benefits of planning around people rather than cars are clear: A cleaner, more sustainable city better able to fight climate change. A stronger public transit system, and more residents who feel valued. And as streeteries show, there are benefits to commerce too.
Many worry that doing away with parking spaces will further increase traffic, or that without abundant parking, visitors will stop coming to Center City. These concerns are understandable, but they haven’t come to fruition in cities that have re-allocated space. New York’s 14th Street Busway, for example, hasn’t created gridlock on neighboring streets. In Philadelphia, occupancy rates at local parking garages have been on the decline, despite Center City becoming more vibrant and in-demand than ever before.
Cities across the world have shown the benefits of people-centered design. In Seoul, a former bi-level highway was returned to nature, spurring development and recreation. In Bogotá, Ciclovía closes 75 miles of streets to motorized traffic once a week, which the city credits with creating a more pacific and equal urban environment. In Paris, the iconic Champs-Élysées, the inspiration for our Parkway, will be re-oriented to serve pedestrians, instead of traffic. These changes haven’t produced the traffic apocalypse that critics have feared. Instead, they’ve freed cities to solve long-term problems like air quality, the urban heat island effect, and flooding. They’ve boosted public transit usage and made more residents feel valued.
Philadelphia should follow in the footsteps of these cities.
City Council should reject the cut to the parking tax and if it passes, the Mayor should veto it. While the Mayor’s decision to finally fund the street cleaning he promised back in 2015 is admirable, the Kenney administration should be clear about the timeline for when this will begin. Additionally, City Hall should push through other projects that parking concerns have obstructed in the past like adding new bus lanes in Center City, building Philadelphia’s protected bike network, and extending the new, streamlined permitting system for streeteries.
These moves will not come without opposition from Philadelphians who value their parking spaces. But our days of rock throwing should be over as we move toward a future that prioritizes people over parking.