But Where Do You Park Your Car?

The three most frequent questions I’m asked by people (parents, specifically) who are curious about living downtown are:

“Where do you buy groceries?”

“Where do your kids attend school?”

“Where do you park your car?”

Of these three, the first two are easily reconcilable. I have good answers for both. But the third question kills the conversation pretty quickly as soon as I answer, “Well, I can usually find a spot within a few blocks.”

The parking situation in my neighborhood has become more and more of a headache in the past two years as A) new businesses have opened and non-residents have decided that OTR is the “place to be” and B) as the City instated new parking restrictions including more metered spaces, higher parking rates, extended hours of enforcement, and started actually enforcing current laws. Together, these have all have forced residents to compete for the few free spaces available. Whereas, five years ago, I could find a parking space on my own street just about any time of the day (except Final Friday), I now sometimes circle for 20 minutes if I want a nearby space and often park 3-4 blocks away. (More on why that’s a problem in a minute.)

Today, we are on the brink of a City Council decision about the fate of parking in OTR and the (likely) institution of a permit parking program that–in my opinion–is too little, too late.

But, back to the issue at hand.
For the average family, the parking issue is one of the main factors in deciding whether or not a place is truly livable, meaning a place that goes from pie-in-the-sky, “I’d love to live there someday, in another life” to an actual, potential place they can thrive as a family. 

I’ve heard many Cincinnati residents (including the Mayor himself, City Council members, and other OTR residents) write-off the parking issue with a naive and condescending “If you don’t want to pay for parking, just get rid of your car. You’re the one who chose to live downtown.” And, sure, in a perfect world or in a world-class city, it would be that easy. Heck, even in Cincinnati, it is possible for many people. But we are still a long way from having an infrastructure that supports a completely car-free life. Especially for families (those of us with more than just ourselves and our own stuff to transport around town).

So, let me explain a few reasons why inconvenient parking kills the urban living dream for the average family.

The distance between your parking space and your front door seems quite a bit more significant when you’re responsible for unloading after a family-sized grocery trip or now have to carry the sleeping babies that fell asleep while you circled the block for twenty minutes.

You cannot leave things in your car when you live in the city. Or, at least you should not. This includes that stroller you’d rather not bring in and out of the house twice a day and the groceries you’d rather just leave for a few hours while you get the kids inside the house for their nap. There is no garage to keep your car/things safe. Leave it and you take the chance of coming back to a broken window and a lost stroller.

Good luck getting friends and family to come visit you at your downtown home when there is no place to park. Other families with kids don’t want to walk six blocks from the nearest parking garage just to visit you. And Grandma doesn’t want to, either. Before too long, Uncle Elmer out in the suburbs will start hosting Easter again because it is just so much easier for everyone. And what about your babysitters? You’ll have to pay them an extra $2 an hour just to pay for their parking.

– There are definitely some housing units available with off-street or designated parking spaces, but these are at a premium and the added cost of the parking space is prohibitive for many families. Most young families I know are sacrificing at least part of an income (if not a complete income) to care for their young children. Many of them live on a strict budget. The difference between a $150k and $350k home to them is like the distance between Earth and Jupiter.

– The cost of paying for a garage space is the same way. An extra $60-95 a month might not be a huge deal to a couple with two full-time jobs and no one to feed other than themselves and a pet cat, but it’s just another unnecessary expense that a working- or middle-class family doesn’t want to deal with.

Have you ever driven an SUV down a tiny cobblestone alleyway? In homes with off-street parking, a family-sized vehicle simply cannot fit. Take us for example: we have the potential for a parking pad in our backyard. But, with three kids and a mother in-law who doesn’t drive, we need a 6+ passenger vehicle. Big cars and small alleys aren’t exactly a good match. For us, parking in the backyard would be a headache every single time.

– With young children in the house, you cannot “just leave the house for a second” to walk down the street and feed the meter. This is why I’d rather circle the block for twenty minutes than park at a metered spot (and why extended meter hours stink). This goes for babysitters, too. If my babysitter arrives in the morning and has to park at a meter, she’ll need to leave my house every few hours to feed the meter and avoid a ticket. With older kids, this is not a big deal. They can be left alone for a few moments. But what do you do when there is a sleeping baby upstairs and the parking meeting around the corner is about to expire? Or when there are three kids who you have to pack up in jackets and shoes to take with you around the corner to pay that meter? It’s obviously not impossible. But it’s obnoxious.

“Just get rid of your car” doesn’t work when there are large grocery trips and grandparents to visit. It doesn’t help when you have a sick child and need to be able to speed to the doctor at any moment. It doesn’t do the job when you have two or three kids who need to be at two different places clear across town within moments of each other. Now, sure, this could be argued as a matter of lifestyle choices. The in-laws could move within walking distance. You could do all of your shopping in small trips around the neighborhood. You could buy a $3000 cargo bike to replace your car. But, like I said, above, our city is just not at a place yet where being completely car-free is a practical decision for most families. Until it is, let’s stop pulling the “Just get rid of your car” card on people who really would like to find a way to make it work for their family.

Okay, now let me be frank for a second. 

My husband and I knew what we were getting into when we moved here. We knew that parking could be difficult. And for the past seven years, we’ve dealt with it as one of a few nuisances among the many benefits of city living. We have also adapted our lifestyle to make it easier on ourselves and, at this point, can go quite a few days without actually needing to use our family vehicle. But I’ll admit that there are times when I’ve been so angry with how hard it is to find a decent parking space that I take those laps around the block red-faced and cursing under my breath so my kids can’t hear.

I don’t consider us your “average family.” Your average family may have never moved here in the first place. And they most certainly are not going to move to place that almost requires playing the parking game we have these days in OTR.

So why does it matter? Do we really want a bunch of average families moving to the urban core of our city. 

Yes, absolutely.

And if you want a city that the average family actually considers livable, you have to build your city with them in mind. Amenities like grocery stores and affordable restaurants are key; healthy and thriving schools are an absolute necessity. Add the availability of family-sized housing that is affordable and offers off-street or near (affordable) parking, and they’ll be moving in droves. Trust me.

For now and for our city, I’m feeling a little helpless at the moment. Not about the neighborhood, in general, but about its livability for families like mine. High-cost developments and inflated market-rate housing costs have already priced-out most of my peers. Neighborhood schools don’t seem to be improving. And this ridiculous parking situation may, quite honestly, be the nail in the proverbial coffin for most working- and middle-class families.

I know that, from an economic standpoint, parking in busy urban districts can seem to be the quickest way to make a buck. Sure: raise the rates, increase the hours, charge visitors a pretty penny to visit our booming downtown. But we need to remember that it’s a city’s residents and business owners, not its visitors, that keep it alive. What our Mayor and City Council are saying to us right now is, basically, they care far more about making some extra cash than they do about ensuring that the urban core remains a livable community.

And that’s an awful shame.

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