Monday, August 17, 2015

Why free parking is entitlement but street vending is encroachment?

You must have seen people who push their way through the queues at the airport, people who honk indiscriminately at the moving vehicles in front, people who throw garbage out of moving cars, people who feel proud of making noise at the restaurants. These people have a great sense of entitlements and they have assumed that they deserve everything they can grab. They feel deeply threatened when their sense of entitlement is challenged. These are the people, who fight for parking spots and believe that it is the obligation of the city to provide space for their car wherever they need.

Parking spots are weirdly linked with the vehicle owner’s ego and the size of the ego is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle they drive. Many vehicles owners think, it is their birth right to get free parking every where. Free parking is usually haphazard parking, which not only obstructs the pedestrian movement but the moving vehicles on the streets. Most of the roads in our cities operate on half their capacity andparked vehicles occupy the other half. We keep making multi-storied parking buildings, which remain empty, but the parking on the streets is chaos.

Every large city in Gujarat and elsewhere requires a policy of paid parking on all their major roads. The international experience shows that the paid parking policies have magical effect of removing unnecessary parking from the streets. This goes a long way in opening up the pedestrian paths and smoothening the traffic flow. But to convert the free parking lots in all major roads into the paid parking lots is a very unpopular move. Because many car owners think that free parking is their entitlement that the government is supposed to provide. The government officials who move around in official vehicles also feel that it is too harsh to charge for parking. This mindset needs to change.

Vehicular parking is similar to street vending as both occupy public spaces like roads for private activities. Arguably, both are economic generating activities and add to the vibrancy of the city. Yet both are treated entirely differently in popular perceptions and thus, by the city government. When word ‘encroachments’ is used generally for the street vendors and not for the freely parked vehicles. The municipal raids to clear ‘encroachments’ do not touch the parked vehicles. Vendors are often under threats by the police and they are pushed around at different occasions. But vehicles can be parked freely anywhere and everywhere. Even the traffic police is selective about the kind of vehicles they catch to fine.

I am optimistic about paid parking policy to become a reality soon. The ever-increasing vehicles on the roads are going to force us to think of new ways of dealing with the ‘parking problem’. In a welcome move, the Ahmedabad’s Municipal Corporation and the Traffic Police have decided to have the paid parking lots around the Sarkhej-Gandhinagar highway. The CG road has had paid parking lots for two decades now but there is lot of unpaid parking in the side lanes. If our cities want to save their streets from being converted into permanent parking lots then the paid parking needs to be extended to its all major roads.

(17th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Is there anything 'compulsory' that the government needs to do?

It is compulsory for the citizens to vote in the local body elections in Gujarat. If you don’t vote, you will be fined and asked for an explanation. Citizens are often blamed by the government and its representatives these days for not keeping the streets cleaned, for not paying enough taxes and now, for not making the democracy work. So the government steps in and makes voting compulsory. Some of us have been voting for many years and some of us have not been – mainly because the politics of the day never excited us to go out and vote. Not having witnessed any changes in the day-to-day situations, cynicism creeps in and voting does not seem like a fruitful exercise. Politicians do not realise that it is their job to ensure that voting remains relevant in our democracy and political contests remain alive. But it is always too much to expect anything from the politicians.

Very well, we will all vote then, without engaging in the conceptual confusion of whether voting is our right or duty or both! But there is a fundamental question about the relationship between the government and the people – should there be mandatory and legally binding accountability on either side when it comes to fulfilling fundamental duties? The relationship between citizens and government is always give and take. As citizens, we may not mind converting our political right as a compulsory duty. In return, we should also make a few things compulsory for the government to do. We should ask the government to mandatorily eliminate child malnourishment or child labour. The government should mandatorily and in legally binding manner, ensure clean water to all or education to all. If they fail to do so, the citizens can crowd-source funds and sue the government!

We do not sue the government because we understand that developmental issues are complex and it is not practical to demand such accountability on mandatory basis. Suing government officials and politicians randomly will neither help in achieving developmental goals nor will it ensure any accountability. Similarly, compulsory voting does not improve the accountability of voters. Compulsory voting will also not ensure smarter policies or smarter politicians. Anything that is compulsory is done half-heartedly. Half-hearted efforts cannot fix the larger problems of democracy.

There is a political promise of ‘minimum government and maximum governance’, which was very well received by the voters. Traditionally in India, we do not know what ‘minimum government’ means and the government has always assumed a large role without worrying about the delivery of any promises. Minimum government essentially means minimum interferences in our private life and respecting our choices. Maximum governance is about high accountability and transparency. Compulsory voting in its very spirit goes against not only this political promise of ‘minimum government’ but also the article 21 of the Constitution about protection of personal liberty. Paraphrasing David Brin, ‘when it comes to privacy and accountability, politicians always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else’. Political accountability strengthens democracy more than compulsory voting.

(10th August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)

Paving paradise and putting up a parking lot? It should cost!

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, they pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” – these are a few words of a song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ by American singer Joni Mitchell. This song summarises the problems created by the relentless parking in our cities. Best of public spaces or common spaces in residential areas are now parking lots. Can you imagine the municipal market at the CG road without parked vehicles? Probably, you will see some beautiful fountains and children playing around a nice plaza. Can you imagine alternative use of spaces in your residential area if it was not fully covered with parking? Probably, children would have lot many spaces to play around without the fear of vehicles and the elderly people would have lot many spaces to ‘hang around’.

The car ownership in India is still very low compared to many other developing countries and with increasing income, more and more families are going to buy cars. The families who already have cars will buy bigger cars. The city will have to make provision for at least two parking spaces per car – one at home and one near the workplace or the shopping place, which will be about 25 square metres per car. This is a huge burden on urban infrastructure to provide so much of floor space for the storage of the vehicles. Besides, one of these parking spaces is always going to remain empty. Parking space is a dead space – it cannot be used for anything else. So who should be investing in the parking infrastructure or whose responsibility is it to provide parking for the vehicles in a city?

Vehicles are private goods. When someone parks a car on a public road, it is an act of ‘privatising the public space’. When the government provides parking for free, they are subsidising the storage of private goods. Why should the government subsidise the storage of private goods? Yet some vehicle owners expect the provision of free parking anywhere and everywhere. To satisfy this demand of the vehicle owners, the government typically supplies multi-storey parking lots.

People who understand parking economics do not think of the multi-storey parking lots as the right solution. Let’s take for example the parking lot near Kankaria Lake, which used crores of rupees from the public exchequer. This multi-storey parking lot remains mostly vacant even in the peak hours while there is parking chaos on the road outside. Why should someone park inside this multi-storey parking lot when they can park on the road for free? The only way to get vehicle owners to park inside the multi-storey parking lots is to keep the parking charges on the streets higher than the parking lots.

It is imperative to take parking charges from every parked vehicle on all major roads for the act of ‘privatising the public space’. The international experience shows that the vehicles ‘disappear’ from roads when the parking is charged and when parking is free, more and more people are encouraged to take the vehicles out even for short trips. Paid parking would lead to better street design and management. If parking is charged on all major roads on the city, there will be a compulsion to provide designated parking lots, the parking chaos will be curtailed and more spaces will open up for the pedestrians.

(3rd August, 2015: DNA Ahmedabad edition, Cities Supplement, Page 5)