A Chicago Tale of Parking, Innovation, Bad Deals and Better Options

SpotHero has, indeed, become my hero. The Expedia of local parking—pre-selling parking lot spaces, often at a discount—has made Chicago a little more do-able in the aftermath of the now fomer Mayor Daley’s parking privitization fiasco. 

Bargains can be especially good in the evening. And there is something slightly “treasure hunt” about it, too. Once you purchase a space (payment via Amazon, which is one-click easy and secure), you print out a map with directions that thoughtfully include details such as “the entrance will be on the right” (even though the street number suggests the left) and “just before Miller’s Pub.” 

It turns out there is an unexpectedly fascinating labyrinth of parking beneath Chicago’s streets. What the Palmer House underground garage, for example, may lack in user-friendly design (some really tight turns on the way down—iffy for an SUV), it makes up for in architectural detail (not the pretty kind, but the kind where you get to see the roots of a building) and Downton Abbey vibe. Two floors up and you find yourself in the Palmer’s “they don’t make ‘em like this anymore” lobby, surrounded by glorious ceiling frescos and Tiffany statues, strolling on whimsical Paisley carpeting. It is enough to make you forget where you were going.

Liberace was the resident pianist here until 1947—a startling stray fact and a reminder of an era, sadly bygone, when parking wasn’t quite such a problem. 

••••••

It certainly is a problem now. Sitting in the sold-out Chase Auditorium (of "Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!" fame), listening to entrepreneurs give it their all the other night at a Technori Pitch, it occurred to me that the City could have used the services of start up It’s Agreedwhich provides online contracts designed to simplify and organize agreements—when it negotiated that gobsmackingly bad parking deal. 

Instead, taxpayers—and their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren—are saddled with a contract literally hundreds of pages long, and so badly written, the City is on the hook for millions of dollars worth of parking meter fees waived for the disabled, along with revenue lost when streets are closed for repair, movie shoots or neighborhood festivals. 

Should anyone be surprised that the city’s street parking sell off continues to look worse and worse?

Here’s a hint: the answer is no.

In a certain place and time—Chicago City Hall, 2008—a billion bucks may have seemed like a lot of dough for a few thousand antiquated parking meters.

Then Chicagoans realized that the city had also hocked its ability to control street traffic, granted police powers to a private entity, and committed to parking fee and fine increases for the next several decades

—Mick Dumke, Chicago Reader

The $1.5 billion Chicago received upfront for the 75-year deal (and has now spent) is, by some accounts, just a tenth of the revenue the meters will generate—even less if meter rates continue to skyrocket. Adding insult to injury, not only is the revenue lost to the Chicago, but a good chunk is departing the country, finding its way into the coffers of the government of Abu Dhabi. 

This means that billions of dollars that might have been spent to shore up and expand the metro area’s public transportation system, providing an affordable, safe, considerably less expensive and greener alternative, have been syphoned off. 

And that impacts Chicago’s competiveness. 

Over the last few months, nervous speculators have been driving oil prices to record levels, with the spector of $6 per gallon gasoline by summer. Good public transportion could easily become the key differentiator that shifts the value balance of one city over another—no tax incentives required. The (lean) bottom line: Companies need employees that can afford to commute. 

On the bright side, should gas prices go that high, fewer people will be able to afford to drive, leaving lots of privatized parking spaces empty—a sort of Don’t Occupy movement for cars. 

Now, juat add a carpooling service. For example, Zimride, a San Francisco-based start up that that just closed a $6 million funding round last fall. Like SpotHero, Zimride brokers unusued inventory—in this case, the seats in a car—adding a social network spin to the deal. Although to date primarily operating in colleage towns, they have, by their accounting, helped users travel over 100 million miles. 

So more people filling more seats in fewer cars, enjoying mutual savings, and finding bargain parking spots.  

Great public transportation is the best answer, but this could be, at least, a better one.

—J.A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews