Connecticut Post (Sunday)
Bowing to the almighty parking spot
In 12 years at my house, we’ve never had a trick-of-treater.
The road is lined with homes, many of which have children, but all of them spend Halloween somewhere else. It’s no surprise given the double-yellow line, the lack of sidewalks and general unfriendliness of the streetscape. You’d have to be crazy to walk down this street at night with young kids.
Unfortunately, it’s not always safer elsewhere.
Children are more likely to be fatally struck by a vehicle on Halloween than any other night of the year, research shows. A 2019 study showed a 43 percent increase in the risk of pedestrian deaths on Oct. 31 compared to other days, with the risk as much as 10 times higher for children.
Of course, there are many more children out on that night, so naturally there will be more incidents. But it’s a sad commentary on modern development that Halloween is one of the few nights of the year when many kids will be out and about in their own neighborhoods. Why is it so rare to walk places?
Given the challenges in the world, this can seem like a minor point, but it comes up in public policy discussions all the time. We’re an overwhelmingly car-dependent state, and while that works fine for many people in most circumstances, there are drawbacks, as well.
Safety is an obvious example. It may be worst on Halloween, but every day brings examples of people hurt or killed by vehicular traffic, many of them nondrivers. These are deaths that we for some reason shrug off as a society, as if it’s simply the price we pay for the way we live. But they’re the result of deliberate policy choices to prioritize driving fast over every other consideration, and could be reduced if we made different choices.
We don’t need to live with 38,000 traffic deaths a year in this country.
One of the choices we make is prioritizing parking. Gov. Ned Lamont raised the ire of urban planners far and wide recently waxing about a new parking garage when he said: “Parking should be something that’s easy, affordable, with a lot of capacity. That’s what we’re doing right here.”
It sounds innocuous enough, and the project in question long predates the governor’s term. But as critics pointed out, making parking easier makes driving easier, which encourages more driving and discourages other modes of transit. That the parking being celebrated is at, of all places, a train station — the busiest Metro-North stop outside of Grand Central — was too much for some people, who want to see more investment in transit-oriented development. “Backwards and archaic” was one of the nicer comments online.
If you build for cars, you get more cars, no matter what your speeches say. Getting away from driving as the only transit option means making hard choices, while building a parking garage means entrenching the status quo.
Some elected officials seem to get that. U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, who was also at the garage event, deserves credit for his willingness to engage online with critics, and he defended the garage celebration. “We still live in a car-centric society,” he said on Twitter. “We should try to migrate away from that.” He added, “I go almost everywhere by train, bicycle and electric vehicle. But that’s not a choice most people can make. Our job is to make that possible for more.”
He’s not wrong. But the context matters, too. The recent past has seen Connecticut unable to pass legislation aimed at fighting climate change, pleading with the federal government for wider highways and now cheering for a parking garage. This is not how elected officials would behave if they really thought the climate was in crisis or that road safety was a priority.
Still, there are signs of change. An unexpected impact of COVID was a demand for outdoor dining at restaurants, often at the expense of parking spaces. Suddenly downtowns discovered what it was like to reclaim some space that had been devoted to cars. Some went so far as to close off streets, creating room for people, including children, to roam free. In some cases, the new space took hold, while others were surrendered back to the all-important parking spots.
These are choices we make. We don’t need to act like it’s all predetermined. There are trade-offs, but that’s true for any policy decision.
Creating spaces for people rather than cars should be a goal of every community. Maybe then kids could feel safe walking around more than one night a year.