July 12, 2007
Life, liberty, and … public garbage cans?
[Hometown Week, continued]
What are the truly essential duties of government? Most people would probably think of national security, police, schooling, and fire at the top of the list. Beside fire protection, what land-use-related task must government do first? In my view, trash collection in public areas needs to be at the top of the list, ahead of zoning, economic development, and social integration. But then, I admit, I use the public parks a lot …
A few years ago, the local county government of my old hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, came up with a new idea -- it removed most of the garbage cans from the public parks. The "carry in, carry out" policy was designed to save money and, supposedly, to encourage better habits of park users. If you know anything about human behavior, it was a disastrous decision, as people simply left their garbage behind. Especially poignant were piles of garbage in spots where the cans used to be. (A somewhat similar phenomenon occurred on the Washington Metrorail when the platform trash cans were removed for security reasons; happily, enormous, bomb-resistant cans have returned.) Quickly, however, public opposition restored the park garbage cans. Walking through Sligo Creek Park in Silver Spring, which is a popular barbecue and picnic spot -- especially among immigrant groups -- I was pleased to find on July 5 that there was very little garbage left in the picnic spots.
Security, education, and public garbage cans. The essential duties of government, yes?
July 11, 2007
When parking becomes economic policy …
[Hometown Week, continued …]
How much (and when) should the public pay for parking? In my old hometown, Silver Spring, Maryland, the local county government has just decided to back down from a plan to raise and extend parking fees at government lots in the newly "revitalized" suburban downtown. Both drivers and local residents, many of whom have received direct or indirect government subsides in recent years, opposed the increases. Some government officials advocated higher parking charges in order to raise revenue and discourage long-term parking in valuable spots.
What's the right answer? The free market would set fees based on supply and demand - and evidence of private parking fees, even in suburban areas such as Silver Spring, is that it does not come cheap. Environmental economists might applaud high parking rates as an appropriate way to force drivers to "internalize" the many public costs of driving and parking (including pollution and taking up public land). But when government controls the rates, different issues come into play, including the natural public desire for a "freebie" and the government's desire to shift around economic development. In Silver Spring, business owners argued vocally that it made little sense for the government to at the same time subsidize the economic redevelopment of the once "declining" old suburb downtown, but then to discourage patronization of the new development with high parking rates. As it now stands, the county government imposes a variety of parking charges in different spots among the inner suburbs. If I were a small business owner in a neighboring suburb, I might complain about a further subsidy to my competitors in Silver Spring through free parking.
It seems to me that government should start with the notion of a uniform fee structure across its jurisdiction, with uniform higher fees at high-demand times. To try to foster development through changing parking fees strikes me as an odd and likely ineffective form of economic policy …