Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Downtown Parking Debate Heats up in 1917

A century ago debate heated up in downtown Salem about a formal on-street curbside parking ordinance. While the ordinance was not adopted at Council on December 3rd, 1917, it had a very serious discussion, and the matter had been percolating all summer and fall.

Back-in, angle parking on a two-way State Street at Commercial
circa 1925 (Salem Library Historic Photos)
This news piece is interesting in many ways, and worth citing nearly in full. You can see in it the lively flavor of the old newspapermen, but also the haste in writing and typesetting. The piece was not edited closely. They reported in more detail, but did not fact-check and verify as much. Contemporary journalistic standards show different trade-offs. Probably also Council meetings were more raucous and chaotic than they are today. In the story, the problem of assessments for street improvement also comes up.* Finally, note the speed limit.

We're really reading in a key period when the policy and regulatory environment for this new technology, the automobile, and a cascading set of changes it sets in motion, is being debated and shaped. Consumer behavior has got out in front of City Council, and they are having to react. Powerful interests push for a bias in one way or another. It is easy to see that different choices might have been made, and that our current patterns of and exceptions for auto use are the result of deliberate policy choices and intent - and we can change them again.

The headlines in 1917 were nuts!
City Council, WWI, Russian Revolution
From December 4th, 1917:

Assessment Against South Commercial Property Owners Objected To

The new automobile traffic ordinance and the bill calling for the assessment of abutting property to cover the cost of improvement of South Commercial street were the two chief matters of importance to receive the attention of the city council at its session last evening.

The traffic ordinance was in an extremely precarious situation for a time After its introduction Alderman Wilson proceded [sic] to go at it with long, sharp scissors and it soon became apparent that certain sections of the ordinance would receive no mercy at the hands of Mr. Wilson. Aldermen Johnson and Kigdon then came to its rescue, and the fray was soon joined by Alderman Ward. Sections were stricken out entirely, then reconsidered and reinserted. Amendments were offered pro and con, until there was some doubt in many minds as to just what was left of the ordinance. Motion was made that it be referred to the ordinance committee to be gotten into shaps [shape] for consideration at the next meeting, and Mayor Keyes voiced the sentiment of the majority of the aldermen when he stated there were parts of the ordinance he would really like to give further study.
That portion of the ordinance, however, prohibiting the parking of automobiles in the business sections of Commercial and State streets, however, has been amended to provide that automobiles parked within the fire limits shall be backed against the curb, headed to the right at an angle of 30 degrees, and as close as possible to the cars next in line.

Considerable dissension was heard on the section of the ordinance dealing with the method of passing other vehicles on the street, and the matter of age limit of boys who are allowed under the present ordinance to drive cars on the streets only on permit of the chief of police.

Vigorous protest was made by Oliver Jory against the bill for assessment to cover cost of improving South Commercial street. Mr. Jory asserted that facts pertaining to the cost of the improvement had been misrepresented to the property owners and directed his accusation mainly at the head of the present administration. He commended the present administration for its policy of retrenchment, but pleaded that Mayor Keyes and his aldermen relieve what he termed the present "deporable [sic] state of affairs" by killing the assemment [sic] ordinance bill.

The assessment was passed unanimously by the council.

On motion of Alderman Ward it was ordered that employes of the city who have gone into war service are to receive their positions back when they return, according to action taken last night.

A petition for lights was received and filed.

A petition from business men on State street opposing the proposed automobile ordinance was received and filed. The ordinance bill provides that autos shall not be parked in the business sections of Statet [sic] and Commercial streets.

A resolution was adopted providing for signs at the city limits at points where important thoroughfare enters the city, warning automobiles to slow down to fifteen miles an hour. The city recorder was authorized to advertise for bids for the signs.
The problem of curbside parking seems to have surfaced in the summer of 1917. Cars of course had been stored in the street for several years before, but it appears that the number of them reached a critical mass that year. Previously there had been a kind of "permission slip" system worked out. If you got permission from the business owner, you could park in front of the business.

June 20th, 1917
From City Ordinance on the "rights of automobilists":
It shall be unlawful for the owner or driver of any vehicle...to use the street in front of any business house or dwelling as a stand or place or rendesvous or resort, without the written permission of the owner, agent or tenant of such business house or dwelling.
October 18th, 1917
But now there wasn't enough turn-over, and people were seen to be hogging the space.

There was also conflict between users of cars and bikes, and between users of wagons and cars. One important dimension were the needs of rural (or rural-ish) farmers and those with wagons who came into the city for a day of business.
...a farmer, who has not advanced to the automobile class yet, asked Chief Cooper what would the police do if he came to down with his team and wagon before the automobiles had occupied all the available roon along the street, and backed his wagon to the curb, unhitched, and left his wagon standing there all day... [Chief Cooper said] "Personally, I am in favor of passing an ordinance requiring the parking of automobiles in the middle of the street. That would leave room for farmers and others who have business at the stores to get in and out."
Some business owners opposed the proposal. (There are almost certainly multiple layers of subtext and motive here, but these are hard to discern at the moment.)

November 23rd, 1917

There are multiple dimensions to the debate, and there might be more to say on them. An ordinance does not seem to have been adopted at the December 17th Council meeting, either, so perhaps a resolution was pushed into 1918. But it seems clear that some kind of tipping point had occurred and new provisions in City Ordinance would be made for the storage, speed, and other disposition of cars on Salem streets.

* Strong Towns has sometimes argued that we should revert to this older system for funding roads:
So how would we shift from a gimmick system to one of value capture? I don't know in total, but I would start tomorrow with the assessment process. If I ran a DOT and a local government wanted a new improvement, I would assess them and their property owners for the value that is created by that improvement. That won't cover the second and third life cycles, but it would stop a lot of stupid projects from happening. In fact, it would probably stop every project from happening, and understand why.

When you are assessing someone, you are capturing the value created by the project. Highway enhancement projects wouldn't happen today because either (a) there is not enough value created to capture, or (b) the property owners won't be willing speculate that they can recoup the cost of the assessment.
I guess if you wanted to stop every single last project, an assessment process would be ok. But if you actually wanted a system that could discern valuable projects from boondoggles and inefficient ones, and then follow-through with a real way to fund them, the old assessment process does not meet that goal. Well-to-do property owners constantly threw monkey wrenches into assessments in order not to pay them! These hiccups and barriers were not based on any analysis of public interest or benefit, but were primarily attempts to evade assessments. Oregon shifting to the Nation's first Gas Tax in 1919 was huge. Absolutely huge. Having property taxes go into a general fund that could be used for streets also helped. 

There is more work to do on understanding from a "Strong Towns" perspective how parts of this older assessment process might have been a useful part of incremental development. This is an instance where I think Strong Towns has an insufficiently critical understanding of history and is trading a little bit too much on nostalgia in lieu of detailed historical analysis. You can talk about incremental development - but you also have to talk about paving roads and drainage. As much as we criticize autoism here, there are undeniable benefits to pavement!

(If you've followed Strong Towns long enough, you'll remember there's also a weird thing for the Gold Standard buried in there. Every once in a while the larger economics policy implied or made explicit in Strong Towns materials yields something a little odd and even reactionary. It's important to say that you don't have to agree 100% with them to find their basic analysis very useful!)

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