Parking problems, like many issues, are often matter of perception

June 10, 2014

Once in a great while a columnist has an opportunity to write about a subject about which he has actual firsthand knowledge.

Not often, of course, but it happens.

In my case, the subject isn’t quite as exciting as insider trading or espionage, though it does generate its share of controversy - parking.

Five years ago, I served for a summer as a Rehoboth Beach parking meter reader. It doesn’t make me an expert on parking, but the experience provided some insight. Also, I lived in Dover for 30 years and parking, especially downtown parking, was a perennial issue.

Recently, mayoral candidate Thomas McGlone criticized Mayor Sam Cooper for his lack of leadership on the parking issue, specifically mentioning the mayor’s lack of support for a parking garage.

Referring to Cooper’s comment about a parking garage not paying for itself, McGlone wrote, “BTW, a new city hall doesn’t pay for itself either.”

True enough, but there’s a big difference. A new city hall would be used year-round.

Not so for a parking garage. For much of the year, it would sit empty.

Yes, you might say, but what about the summer? It would be filled for the season, when parking problems are most acute. That alone would make a parking garage worth the expense.

Surprisingly, that’s not true either. Even during the summer, Rehoboth Beach, on most days, doesn’t have what I consider a true parking problem.

Not that people don’t get upset. For some reason, searching for a parking space brings out the worst in people.

One day, while I was making my rounds, a man rolled down his window and screamed at me about how Rehoboth needed to do something about its parking problem. He couldn’t find a place anywhere! He seemed to hold me personally responsible.

Here’s the thing. He was driving on the ocean block of Rehoboth Avenue. Unfortunately for this hysterical driver, during the summer you have about as much chance spotting an elephant as an open parking space in the first block of Rehoboth Avenue.

But on this particular day there were plenty of available spaces in town, even on the ocean block of Wilmington and Delaware avenues. The second blocks were nearly empty.

I tried to tell him this, but I’m not sure the message got through. He wanted a parking space exactly where it was most convenient for him.

Sorry, that’s not what I call a parking emergency. And a parking garage three blocks from the beach would not have solved this man’s problem. (I’m not sure what would have. For all I know, he’s still driving Rehoboth Avenue looking for a spot.)

We had a similar situation in downtown Dover. Most days we didn’t have a real problem there either. It was a matter of perception.

Just like the crazed Rehoboth Avenue driver, people in Dover got upset if they couldn’t find a spot right in front of the store where they planned to shop.

In 30 years, I almost never had a problem. I parked on a side street, where there was usually ample parking, and I walked a block. Sometimes half a block.

What’s the big deal? Unless you have a disability, this isn’t a problem. It’s even better for you.

But the people of Dover demanded a “solution” and eventually they got one. Sort of.

To solve the problem of downtown parking, the town’s parking commission decided to build a lot two blocks south of Loockerman Street, the main corridor of Dover’s business district. They studied the matter, and experts said it would work.

To great fanfare - well, mild fanfare - the parking lot was finally opened.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a case of “If you build it, they will come.” It was more like, “You want us to park where?”

People continued trying to find spots on Loockerman Street, and the new parking lot attracted more tumbleweeds than shoppers. (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration.) Eventually, they closed the lot and turned the site into a transportation hub.

So how to solve Rehoboth’s problem? Technology might help. In some cities, smartphone apps help people find parking spaces. (I couldn’t find one for Rehoboth.)

Driverless cars may also be available in the not-too-distant future. That would have an impact too. People sitting in driverless cars might not get as frustrated.

In general, cities are looking toward a future of fewer parking spaces.

For special events like the Fourth of July, I doubt there’s a magical solution to parking and congestion that would make everyone happy. Anyone coming up with one deserves a statue.

And for everyday parking issues, people can always roll down the window and yell at the meter reader.

  • Accomplished writers appear in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.