Oct 14, 2009

Consumer Repellants

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

Every once in a while, I check out ClusterFox New’s website to find out who is advertising there to be sure I don’t buy anything from their sponsors. It doesn’t mean much to anyone but me, but I’m the only guy I have to satisfy at this late point in life. Likewise, this afternoon--when it turned out that I’d managed to escape my class and arrived early for my wife’s birthday party at my daughter’s home—I found myself with a rare couple of unoccupied hours and an appetite. I’m near downtown Minneapolis, a place with a plethora of great restaurants in nearly every area of the city, and I’m not on a budget or in a hurry. Where do I go?

Dinkytown has great burger joints and designer beer. It also has parking meters and a boatload of underemployed metermaids. Downtown restaurants are practically abandoned buildings at 2PM, but they are surrounded by those damn meters. Riverfront? Nope, brand new meters as of last fall. So, I ended up in a neighborhood bar with “famous” hamburgers and I’m set for the next couple of hours.

The ‘burbs live off of consumers’ rejection of “urban planning” stupidity customer hostility. If I were an owner of a suburban business, I think I’d try to get myself elected to a major city's City Council so that I could increase the number of parking meters and metermaids. I think repelling consumers from the city would be at least as effective as an advertising campaign. I wouldn’t have to pay for the parking meters and metermaids, so on a cost-basis the political campaign might be a lot more effective use of my time and money than advertising. That might explain why so many city council members live outside of the urban centers.

At the least, I think urban business people ought to use accurate terminology when they are describing these meter plagues. I’d call them “consumer repellants.” Parking meters are probably the most effective way to reduce downtown congestion, over-stimulated downtown business activity, and all of the complications that come with customers and money-changing in a living city. Far better to force all of that nasty commerce on to the suburbs where they are better situated to deal with business.

St. Paul, for example, has shed the shackles of capitalism and opted for a purely government-based economy. Every significant downtown building is jammed with city and state offices and workers and that has saved the city from having to mess with sales taxes, traffic, and inflating property taxes. The City of St. Paul is an abandoned ghost town the moment all those city and state employees head back to the suburban homes. So much volume vanishes from the downtown area it almost feels like you’ve entered a low pressure zone if you stick around past 4:30PM in downtown St. Paul.

Minneapolis, on the other hand, has extended metering hours to 10:30PM, so that city’s metermaids prowl the streets looking for stragglers to punish and the rare visitor to downtown restaurants and bars. Duluth just began a major campaign to rid itself of tourists and Canal Park visitors. It will take a few years, but that brilliant strategy will soon solve both city's’ nasty downtown business problems.

For her birthday, this September, my wife wanted a trip to Duluth. Because she was feeling guilty about making me drive our cage through Wisconsin on our anniversary, she pretended she wanted to take the bike. We've done this trip a few dozen times in the last decade and it has always been one of our favorite things to do in Minnesota. The weather report for Duluth was for a 60% chance of rain. She wanted to hang out in Canal Park. Duluth downtown parking is motorcycle hostile and I couldn't think of a good reason to deal with the hassle. I suggested we take the cage so she'd be comfortable. She drove. I read a book.

A couple of years ago, I was forced to travel through downtown Cincinnati and I was amazed at how effective that city’s parking meter solution had been. That large, once-booming downtown was absolutely abandoned on a perfect Saturday afternoon. I think you could walk naked through Cincinnati’s streets and nobody would notice. It was amazing! Cincinnati had such an effective parking meter program that the Amtrak station’s parking lot was teeming with metermaids, like sharks who’d sniffed blood in the water but who’d arrived too late to sample the kill. As I loaded my gear on to my bike in front of the station, two Cincinnati metermaids stopped to warn me that I had ten minutes to move or they’d “have to” ticket me for illegal parking. As I pulled out of the loading zone, they looked absolutely lonely with the station lot back to its natural empty status.

When I toured North Dakota, I was sort of impressed with that state’s attitude toward ghost towns and empty business buildings. It seemed to me that a year or two of abandonment was justification for bulldozing a building or town. I wonder how long it will take for the major cities to take this approach? St. Paul has a “World Trade Center,” but if al Qaeda had blown up that collection of empty office spaces nobody in the state, let alone the nation, would have noticed. The city could save itself a lot of energy by knocking down at least half of the downtown buildings and making something useful out of the space; like more empty parking lots. At least you don’t have to heat a parking lot. It’s not like the city’s metermaids are so busy that adding a couple thousand more spaces to their route would cause an inconvenience.


Anonymous said...

Bomb disposal squads in the war sometimes filled time fuzes with liquids which were then frozen to immobilize the mechanism, rendering it safe to handle. Today fast-curing epoxies could be injected into parking meters with a similar result.

In the Boston area in the 1970s there was the fad for "pedestrian space", which meant not only no floor traffic for businesses but also no way to resupply stores that did somehow succeed in selling things. It all got reversed in time.

Another favorite is the high-efficiency "tower block" apartments built in rings outside European cities in the mid-late-1960s. These, with their "green space" and their "rapid" transit to city centres, soon became symbols of alienation and hopelessness, and are today either empty or occupied by Algerians or Chechens. They were built in hope of a "green metropolis" by starry-eyed city planners who had never seen a functioning neighborhood. But "efficiency" means we must all have cars so we can drive to the mall, bypassing outdated neighborhood stores.

So much progress.


Anonymous said...

My fair town is about to turn to the Holy Grail of paid parking downtown in order to make up for the hugely mismanaged budget mess they have. An unintended consequence of which will be a huge influx of people, mainly downtown workers, into residential neighborhoods looking for free parking, meaning actual residents can't park in front of their homes, driving the residents gradually away too. The wasteland will gradually spread from the center out, which can be clearly seen in several nearby cities with draconian paid parking downtown.

T.W. Day said...

"Those who refuse to learn from history. . . ?" One of the worst side-effects of Americans' disaffection from the responsibility of government is that local governments become arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent. My hometown is no different, in that respect.

Of course, the "fix" for part of your complaint will be street parking permits that residents will be "allowed" to purchase so only residents can park on the streets in front of their homes. That will escalate the death of downtown and the devaluation of near-downtown property values. St. Paul, MN has perfected all of those tactics and the town is dead, worthless, and beyond resuscitation.

T.W. Day said...

So much for the intelligence of marketing geniuses. After my rant about the foolishness of downtown parking planners, one of my Google advertisers was a website called "Downtown Mpls Parking" ("Close to Everything Far from Expensive" at www.parkmpls.com). I followed the link, out of curiosity. These guys charge $13/day to park near a city that is rarely, if ever, particularly busy for anything outside of the 9-5 workday, $7/hour for the first hour. Of course, no motorcycle accommodations, let alone a discount for the partial space a motorcycle uses.

What part of "complaint" do these people misunderstand?

Anonymous said...

Tonight I am driving my wife to a nearby "downtown" that is so deserted at night she is afraid to go by herself--it is a sea of deserted streets with parking meters, empty parking garages, and the occasional roaming criminal at night. One has to run a gauntlet from the empty parking garage to get to a major, state-run and funded theater where you are safe. It is positively eerie at night--no one in the elevators, echoing footsteps in the garage, long empty hallways, etc. Just like a horror movie. The only one you see outside of the theater is the parking lot attendant who collects your fee.

Unknown said...

If you people in Minnesota would watch Fox News regularly you could stop electing buffoons like Jessee Ventura and Al Franken to public office

Anonymous said...

Quite a story (http://www.truthout.org/1023099) and it says way too much about some folks.

T.W. Day said...

That's an interesting thought, however, all I get from watching Fox News is depressing evidence that human intelligence is dropping far below monkeys'. I can't do it. But I can do the next best thing, watch Fox News summarized by John Stewart.

Honestly, Jesse was the best governor I've witnessed. Love him or hate him, he had a first rate support crew, predicted and spoke out against the budget mess we've been in since Pawlenty took office, got the city its first mass transit system since GM and the oil companies killed the city's old rail system, and Jesse made many of the state's public services offices deliver public service.

As for Al, his amendment to the 2010 defense bill to defund companies that protect rapists with their corporate contracts was worth his election. The 30 Faux News Republicans who voted against that bill will rot in infamy.

I'd have to give up at least 50 IQ points to watch Fox regularly. I don't have that many points to give.

Unknown said...

"St. Paul, for example, has shed the shackles of capitalism and opted for a purely government-based economy."

Your words. This is "government, by the government, for the government", yet you apparently decry conservative (pro capitalist, pro individual, anti socialist) thought as intellectually degrading. Many years ago, I used to (emphasis on "used to") live in the Socialist Republic of Minnesota, but didn't accept a job there when I finished professional training, preferring to escape punitive taxation, and parking meters. I now spend at least several months a year in Arizona, and I haven't seen any parking meters there, including the Phoenix metro area, or in ND where I spend the rest of my time. It seems incongruent that you are critical of the policies of a style of governance that you apparently are strongly in favor of. Go figure.
That said, I really do enjoy your articles. We are likely of the same age and general motorcycling background (47 years now for me). I did MSF instructing for a time, and continue to ride as much as possible (I rode to work today, Nov 12). I've taken performance riding classes, done track time and just bought a dedicated lightweight class ex-race bike for track days, to the dismay of my wife. The South Park "Harley Fag" episode was right on the money, although I better not say that around my Harley-riding friends! Keep up the good work.

T.W. Day said...


Thanks for writing; and reading.

The US conservative movement is about keeping power and money in the hands it currently resides with. I don't mind being taxed, if I get something for my money. Once the wingnuts took over government, it's only purpose was to feed the rich and corrupt.

When I first moved to MN, in 1996, I was impressed with how well government worked here. Ventura made it even more responsive and accountable for 4 years. Pawlenty turned back the clock to 1950's corruption, irrational taxation, inept government bureaucracy, and "they are fees, not taxes." I don't care what people say they are for, I'm only interested in what they actually do. Nixon, Reagan, Bush I & II enlarged government spending, blew up the debt, and bankrupted the country; economically and morally. You can call them "conservatives," if it makes you feel better, but they are just corporate communists in my book. Government by and for the corporations.

I don't know what your "professional training" might have been, but if it was medical, engineering, or physics it would have been provided by the taxpayers you distain who created and substidize the University of Minnesota. Our private colleges do not provide "professional training." They are religious organizations who pretend to know something about the real world. I'm always disappointed by Americans who want the public to create a life for them, but feel no obligation to pay that debt. Many Canadian doctors have the same disease. They get a free education and flee to the US where they can cash in on their fellow citizens' investment. I don't know that is your case, but that is for you to decide. I've given up on hoping for morality from humans.

Disliking corruption in government doesn't make me like corruption in corporations. I, as a voter, have some control over what my government does. Democracy has some checks and balances. Corporations are just rat packs of crooks with nothing but government controlling their greed and destruction. I'm a big fan of democracy. Corporations are anti-democratic.

Government isn't the problem. People are the problem. Anytime you put more than a dozen people together some scumbag takes control of the pack and the whole thing turns to crap. Humans are a dumb, self-destructive, follow-the-herd species. I'm a firm believer in David Roth's crowd IQ theory, divide the IQ of the smartest person in the crowd by the number of people in the crowd. The more of us there are, the dumber we get.

Today was a great ride-to-work day for mid-November. Mid-50's, not particularly windy, and downright comfortable for full gear. If the weather holds up, I'll be riding well into the month, maybe past Thanksgiving. None of my Harley aquaintances have spoken to me since the South Park show. The silence is comfortable.

Unknown said...

Whew, Tom, you paint me with a broad brush. I disdain taxpayers? Please. I'm one of the 20% who pay 80% of the freight in this country. I do agree with your view of people who want the public (coffers) to create a life for them. A lot less welfare, entitlements and affirmative action would go a long way in convincing people to take responsibility for themselves, but I doubt we'll see this in the current social and economic climate. BTW, people who go to state universities to gain education and training are, like me, the same people who become the taxpayers who support said institutions. It's not a one-way street.

T.W. Day said...

Yeah, I slipped off of the wagon. Every once in a while Jon Steward runs a collection of ClusterFox news clips and I begin to think humans are too stupid to survive a decent winter storm. Sorry.

However, if you're not paying taxes and supporting the society that paid for your education, you're just one of the many who expect society to honor your efforts without reciprocating. Getting an education in a state that supports education and, then, moving to a state with a 1920’s education system and 1920’s taxation isn’t something to brag about. ND is living off of the rest of the country’s investment in non-renewable energy and unsustainable oil and gas production. Sort of like SoCal and the military-industrial complex in the 1980s. I’d love to believe that ND can figure out how to avoid following every other oil-producing local into the sewer of corruption and short-term money grubbing, but I don’t. As for Phoenix, without the support and protection of the federal government there wouldn’t be a Phoenix because there wouldn’t be sufficient water to support life there.

Everybody wants everybody else’s welfare cut off, especially those milking the corporate welfare teat.

Unknown said...

Some good points, but I'll still take the 1920's taxation, thank you very much. Also much less corruption in our state government than in many other states (dare I include, gulp, Minnesota?). And a budget surplus with continuing low unemployment. These things allow me, in part, to presently be in Arizona, where my track bike just got a new set of Power Ones, where the weather is warm, the birds are singing, and where the weekend looks promising for a great track day at Firebird. Cheers! Wayne

T.W. Day said...

You can probably, fairly, include Minnesota in the corrupt government group of states. We'll see about North Dakota. I hope you are right, but oil has a long, unbroken record of corrupting societies. I was amazed to bump into a hooker at a filling station in Tioga on my way through to northwest ND last summer. She wasn't making any effort to hide what she was selling, which improved my mood for the afternoon's travels, but didn't say much for what passes for a police force in small town ND.

It's hard to take an "anti-socialist" opinion seriously when it's financed by national substitidies on oil, corn, and corporate ag. ND and AK are a pair of this decade's welfare states. CA, AZ, and most of the south were the welfare states of the 1980s. The south still sucks up a lot more federal dollars than it pays out. "Conservative" states regularly depend on the rest of the country to bail them out:

Everybody wants everybody else to get off of welfare, but nobody wants to give up their own. Humans are weird, but predictable.