One of the most traffic choked cities in the world has always been home to an oddity – street parking is free and with almost no restrictions. No time limits, no permits, no payment required – at least officially. As long as you don’t block a driveway, you can park on a local street. This past weekend, a neighborhood got to vote on the novel idea of introducing parking meters to restore some order to their streets.
As “The High Price of Free Parking” taught us, a policy of free and unlimited parking comes with many serious drawbacks. For one, by making parking free, more driving is encouraged, which is especially troublesome in a city known for its endless gridlock. At any given point, how many tens of thousands of drivers are circling the block, looking for an elusive empty space?
The other downside has come with the way the market has responded – with extortion.
Every day before dawn, dozens of men appear in the Mexican capital’s hip Condesa neighborhood and block off parking spaces along entire streets using water jugs, cardboard boxes, buckets, crates and even blocks of cement. As visitors start arriving for
the district’s restaurants, organic food stores, boutiques and art
galleries, the men collect 20 to 40 pesos ($1.50-$3), remove the
obstructions and let drivers park.
Often the only option is to pay
the ad hoc attendants, known as “franeleros” for the rags — “franelas” —
they use to signal cars in and out of parking spaces they have
commandeered. Not paying could mean returning to a broken windshield
wiper, a long key scratch along a door or, in extreme cases, a smashed
window. Another option is to leave car and keys with valet parking attendants, who also block spaces for their clients.
Posters plastered throughout Condesa warn
that franeleros could be used by criminals because they spend entire
days on the same streets, learning the habits of residents.
Authorities laud the success of the machines that were installed in another affluent neighborhood, Polanco, a year ago. “Polanco was the parking lot of
the whole city,” said Maria Ignacia Moran, a community activist. “Office
workers would leave their cars here all day, leaving behind traffic
chaos because many of the cars were doubled parked, left on sidewalks.
And at times the franeleros even parked them in our driveways.”
Traffic in Polanco is now more
orderly, open parking spaces can generally be found and franeleros have
largely disappeared, at least when the meters are in operation. And
money from the meters helps pay for increased police patrols and
improved streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure, according to Erwin
Crowley, executive director of the city’s Public Space Authority.
Crowley said meters have pushed
people to find other modes of transportation to Polanco. “Before we had
10,800 cars coming into the district each day. We have cut that to
5,400,” he said. Some of those drivers simply started parking in nearby
neighborhoods, which have seen an increase in traffic. So authorities
have begun installing parking meters there as well.
Many are vehemently opposed,
hanging banners from balconies to attack meters, saying the streets are
public and no one should profit from them. But others hope the plan will
cut down on cars from elsewhere. Parking has become so critical that
some Condesa residents have seized their own pieces of the street by
erecting removable metal bars that jut from curbs in front of their
Some are even concerned that ugly surface lots have been redeveloped, because it makes things inconvenient.
“The main problem is not the
franeleros but all the businesses that have opened up and have no
parking,” said Antonia Romero, 67, who has lived by Parque Mexico for 35
years. “We used to have parking lots, but they have been replaced them
with apartment buildings.”
The parking meters are one of the many new changes that have come to Mexico City in the last decade, including BRT, bikeshare and Sunday streets. These changes have all had big effects on something the city used to be infamous for – air pollution.
This megacity of more than 20 million rang in the New Year with a
pleasant revelation: the region registered 248 days in 2012 in which the
air quality considered good.
Mexico City has emerged as an aspiring environmental model citizen in
recent years as the left-leaning local government has introduced
everything from barter markets for recyclables to bicycle-sharing
arrangements to zero emissions bus corridors.
Tanya Müller García, the local environment secretary, presents
posters charting the city’s air quality since 1986, when such
record-keeping began, to underline how much the air has improved.
Index scores topped 200 on a 500-point scale in the early years – bad
enough that the local government could close schools and industry. No
such scores have been registered since May 2003, while the number of
good days steadily climbed from 181 days in 2008 to 211 days in 2011 to
last year’s 248.
The parking meters should help clean the air as well. Less people driving (and choosing the subway or bus) obviously means less pollution, but the effects are far reaching, as each vehicle off the road means less congestion, and with that, every single vehicle still on the road pollutes less.
The locals agree. The residents of Condesa and neighboring colonias hit the polls this weekend, and according to preliminary results, the vote was “yes” for meters. The final results are to be published on Thursday.