Tuesday, January 25, 2011

No such thing as free parking

--except in Monopoly

The recent article in the PNJ about parking at UWF has spurred me to share some thoughts on parking.

We live in a culture that cherishes the freedom implied by automobiles. Since the advent of the automobile, we have built our cities around them, easing their use. One thing that we have come to expect is ample, free parking.

But is free parking really free?

Take a look at the recent CRA master plan. Much of downtown is covered with surface parking (shown in purple and red), occupying our prime commercial land. That is land that could house businesses or residences. Businesses that would draw more people downtown, whether to shop or to work. Residences that increase the numbers of people living downtown. Both would contribute to our local economy and support our city services.

If the land were occupied by buildings, walking downtown would be much more pleasant. Consider how appealing walking on Palafox St is, with the variety of window displays to interest you. Compare that to walking on Romana St, past large expanses of parking. Or, a more extreme case, compare it to walking along 9th Ave beside Cordova Mall.

Businesses throughout our community subsidize parking (and, therefore, driving). The business must buy more land than it needs for its actual work and then pays taxes on the land that is taken up by parking.

But we “need” all of that parking. Most people can’t walk or bike to work, and our bus system is inadequate. To reduce the amount of our land dedicated to parking without an uproar, we must reduce the demand for parking. People need an incentive to consider an alternative to just hopping in the car.

What kind of incentive could there be? Many businesses downtown currently pay for parking spaces for their employees. Instead of paying for those spots directly, what if they gave the money to their employees, letting them make the decision for themselves about how much they are willing to pay for the convenience? Alternatively, employers could start paying employees who forgo their parking spot, a little reward for using a different, and mostly likely less convenient, way of getting to work.

I do not expect that such a simple program alone will make much of a dent in our transportation challenges. Nor would it transform our landscape overnight. However, it will be a regular reminder that there are options and there are incentives to try something different. Employees could switch to carpooling, the bus, or other means. People might start asking for a better transit system, and the transit system would have the riders to justify an increase in the service. And better service might draw more folks, and perhaps the number of people driving to work will begin to decrease. With less demand, perhaps businesses won't need to continue to subsidize parking so much.

The oil spill last spring was a horrible reminder of what our collective actions can do to our environment. The devastating results of our dependence on oil should encourage us as a community to step up and take leadership in changing our behavior. Small steps such as this can start the shift.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Choosing a council president

Next Monday Pensacola embarks on a new era in our city government. The first elected mayor will be sworn in. It’s time to heal any rifts from a vigorously fought campaign, time for our entire community to unite in wishing Mayor Hayward great success in moving Pensacola to take its rightful place as one of the great cities in the Southeast.

But another important step will also take place on Monday--one that is also critical to the success of city government under the new charter. That is the election of the council president. And just as Mayor Hayward will shape the roll of mayor, the new president will have a vital role in determining how city government functions under the new charter.

So what qualities should we look for in a council president?

Diligence and attention to detail. The new president will work with staff to prepare meeting agendas. It’s not sexy, won’t garner applause, but it is an important and time-consuming function of the new council president. The president needs to thoroughly understand the City budget and be grounded in public policy and make sure that something as mundane as a meeting agenda helps accomplish our long-range goals.

A team-builder. The new council will blend new faces with old. While we may represent different constituencies, while we may differ on issues and vigorously debate our points of view, we must do everything possible to avoid a polarized council. The new president will need to be able to set aside his or her personal agenda to help create a team out of diverse viewpoints and talents. The council as a whole must be bigger than any individual member.

A bridge builder. The council president will be the liaison between the council and the mayor and the council and staff. He or she must earn the respect and trust and establish good working relationships with Mayor Hayward as well as with the city staff.

Able to recognize and tap creativity. We have a diverse and talented council. The president should tap the unique skills of the other council members. As committee chairs, council members can play an active role in setting City policy. (It would be a mistake, I believe, to place all of the power in one council president heading the only committee, squandering the depth and breadth of leadership that exists in the council.)

Able to run open, efficient meetings. The president must be respectful and open to citizen input, fair to all members of council, able to maintain discussion that is germane without being heavy handed, and respectful of everyone’s time. A complete understanding of Robert’s Rules of Order is a must.

Committed to making this new charter work. The charter is short. It broadly outlines the structure of our new form government. But there is a lot of gray area. The council president will collaborate closely with the mayor to create a functioning government that is consistent with the spirit of the Charter the citizens ratified and to serve the best long-term interests of Pensacola

Finally, the choice of council president this Monday will embody the council's vision for its role in this government. It is as important as any decision this council will make.

The deliberations of the city council are an important part of representative government. The mayor will act outside of the spotlight, while the council is the public face of decision making and a primary entree for citizen input. It is the open government branch. The council president will set the tone for these deliberations, from setting agendas to running meetings to empowering other council members.

This is an exciting time to be involved in the city government. Each of the members of the government have unique roles. We are no longer supporters or foes of candidates or of the charter, but we are all working together as supporters of Pensacola and Pensacolians. I look forward to working with the council, the mayor, and the citizens to create a government that is effective, efficient, and innovative—putting us on the path of becoming one of the great cities in the Southeast.