Spielman Trots Out “War on Cars” Rhetoric for Report on Parking Tax Hike

The Greenway Self-Park at Kinzie and Dearborn. Photo: John Greenfield

Veteran Sun-Times reporter’s Fran Spielman’s recent piece on Mayor Emanuel’s plan to raise the city’s parking garage tax was a classic example of windshield-perspective journalism.

As part of his 2015 budget, Emanuel has proposed raising the parking tax by 10 percent on weekdays and 11 percent on weekends, to 22 percent and 20 percent, respectively. Spielman reported. The mayor hopes the hike will generate an additional $10 million, which would be earmarked to hire 80 new employees for year-round pothole repair crews.

The increased garage tax “is not the only hit motorists will be asked to absorb in 2015,” Spielman wrote. The budget would also raise the tax paid by Chicago residents who lease their cars from eight to nine percent. That increase is expected to generate $60 million in additional revenue.

This would be the third time Emanuel has tweaked the garage parking tax since he took office in 2011. His first budget included a $2 surcharge for weekday garage parking, which the mayor referred to as a “congestion fee.” In 2013, he changed the parking tax from a sliding scale to a fixed percentage, Spielman reported.

Predictably, downtown Alderman Brendan Reilly and Marc Gordon, president of the Illinois Hotel and Lodging Association, are griping that making it a little more expensive to drive downtown would have a chilling effect on local commerce. Gordon has said the same thing before each previous parking tax hike.

“[The garage parking tax is a popular punching bag for the mayor, in part, because it’s part of a larger plan to discourage driving by building protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit lanes that shrink the number of lanes available for passenger vehicles,” Spielman wrote. Here we see the tired “war on cars” rhetoric that’s all too common among mainstream news sources.

The purpose of street reconfigurations that make room for PBLs and dedicated bus lanes is not to stick it to motorists. For example, converting a mixed-traffic lane to a two-way protected bikeway on Dearborn created a safe place for north-south Loop bike traffic. It also reduced speeding on a street that formerly had capacity for 40,000 motor vehicles a day but only carried about 13,000.

The new street configuration on Washington for the Loop BRT corridor.

The Loop BRT project, slated to break ground this spring, is a strategy to move more people, not just motor vehicles, efficiently through downtown. After all, buses represent only four percent of vehicles moving through the Loop, but carry 47 percent of people traveling in vehicles. Converting a few mixed-traffic lanes on Washington and Madison to bus lanes and island stations is predicted to save an average of 7.5 minutes on the trip across the Loop for the nearly 30,000 workers and visitors who ride buses on these streets each weekday.

Even if Emanuel’s ulterior motive behind the parking garage tax hike was to reduce the amount of downtown driving, it’s questionable whether this measure would have the desired effect. Widening the price gap between metered on-street spaces and garage parking leads more people to cruise the streets looking for curbside spots.

On the other hand, the new tax would make it less profitable to build and operate parking garages. Encouraging developers to use valuable downtown land for more productive purposes like housing and retail, rather than warehousing cars, would be an excellent thing for the future of the city.

  • skyrefuge

    What exactly was the “war on cars” rhetoric used by Spielman? That the mayor is trying to “discourage driving”? He has a stated goal to “to increase bicycle use”. Both of those things are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one without the other. It’s quite obvious that the mayor does in fact want to discourage driving in favor of other modes, and that’s something Streetsblog completely agrees with, right? So you’re just mad that Spielman did not sufficiently obfuscate that truth? It seemed like a perfectly neutral and factual article to me.

    And then you don’t think that parking pricing influences mode-choice? (while simultaneously believing that parking supply-reduction does!) What?

  • Alderman Reilly is full of crap.

    I’m pretty sure he denied a zoning request earlier this year for a new hotel project on the basis that it would cause too much congestion. Now, when raising taxes would provide a disincentive for driving/parking, possibly easing traffic, he opposes it.

  • what_eva

    The parking tax is going to pothole crews, which benefits motorists. Sounds like a reasonable use tax to me.

  • oooBooo

    The rhetoric used to support these reconfigurations and taxes (by streetsblog and others) is very clear that the goal is to discourage driving, to make driving more expensive and difficult. But then when someone makes a point of what the supporters say, especially amongst themselves, suddenly the Jedi mind trick comes out. This isn’t an anti-driving measure and these aren’t the droids you’re looking for it’s not that much more money it’s not an undo hassle.

    But let’s say that Rahm isn’t trying to discourage driving. What’s he doing then? He’s deploying the age old raid on what is assumed to be the bottomless wallets of motorists. And of course this tax won’t be counted in those ‘who pays for the roads’ articles.

  • JacobEPeters

    “The garage parking tax is a popular punching bag for the mayor, in part, because it’s part of a larger plan to discourage driving by building protected bike lanes and bus rapid transit lanes that shrink the number of lanes available for passenger vehicles,” Spielman wrote.

    The use of shirk and punching bag suggest that drivers are victims, when in fact the tax is going towards fixing potholes created by the wear and tear of cars. It is also important to point out that buses and bikes are “passenger vehicles”. Just not motorized, and privately operated.

  • Not sure if Spielman had this definition in mind, but the U.S. DOT does define “passenger vehicles” as cars or trucks used for passengers, but not bikes, buses or trains: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Passenger_vehicles_in_the_United_States

  • JacobEPeters

    That is just a crazy inaccurate definition.

  • skyrefuge

    Drivers ARE “victims” of increased parking prices and reduced travel lanes. If it took Spielman using words like “punching bag” and “shrink” to make you realize that plain truth, then it sounds like she did a great job. In almost any transportation decision, there are going to be winners and losers. Attempting to hide that fact and pretending that everyone is a winner is self-defeating, because people will quickly realize you aren’t being straight with them. (Linguistically, she actually erred in referring to the *tax* as the “punching bag”, as it’s not the tax that’s being harmed. She should have instead called *garage-parkers* the “punching bag”, or called the tax “a well he keeps returning to”. But that error makes her rhetoric sound *less* like a war on cars)

    And if you consider “private automobiles” a crazy inaccurate definition for “passenger vehicles”, you need to learn more about how language works. Spielman used a phrase that her readers would understand refers to private automobiles, which is how a writer should write. Do you also object every time someone refers to an encased meat on a bun as a “hot dog”, because the meat almost never comes from a canine?

    And the tax money is not going towards fixing potholes. It is going to the general fund. The “fixing potholes” bit is nothing more than a political statement to make the cost to drivers feel more-acceptable.

  • JacobEPeters

    There are dozens of ways to travel downtown without having to store your car in a garage in the center of the city. Driving into the center of the city is a choice which has many effects which detrimentally impact bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists not to mention the impacts to environment, land use, and wear on public roads. Increasing charges for this choice is not victimization, just as a tax on a cigarette is not victimizing the person who chooses to smoke.

  • skyrefuge

    “There are dozens of ways to travel downtown without having to store your car in a garage in the center of the city. Driving into the center of the city is a choice which has many effects which detrimentally impact bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists not to mention the impacts to environment, land use, and wear on public roads.”

    I agree 100%.

    But that does not mean that those drivers do not suffer a negative consequence when the tax is raised or space is removed. Whether that negative consequence rises to the level of “victimization” I’ll leave for you do decide, since you’re the one who introduced that word into the conversation in the first place. Spielman sure never used it.

  • JacobEPeters

    something being used as a “punching bag” sure sounds like its being made out as being a victim of something

  • cjlane

    ooooooob:” The rhetoric used to support these … is very clear”

    Yeah, John came right out and wrote it for a change:

    “part of a larger plan to discourage driving”

    The straightforwardness is kind of refreshing, as compared to “oh no, we’re just advocating for options” that usually gets tossed around.

  • oooBooo

    Except what will happen at best is that the funds will be used to expand the road maintenance budget but the fact that these are exclusively motorist paid taxes won’t show up on any of the analysis of which users pay what. The costs will. So while more money from motorists’ pockets will go to the roads, it will be analyzed as general taxes paying for roads and thus fodder the anti-driving crowd.

    That’s the best case, however. The realistic case is these funds will be spend on something other than what is promised. Thus it will be yet more general taxation paid by motorists for which no credit will be considered in the who-pays-what analysis.

  • oooBooo

    huh? that’s in a quote from Spielman, not the author’s words.

  • cjlane

    buses are “automobiles”, too. And the distinction between a car and a truck is immaterial. And a bike messenger is a “cargo vehicle”–should s/he be treated the same as a freight train?

    It’s just a defined term, based primarily on the GVWR.

    The US Code also defines “Multifunction school activity bus” to be a “school bus” NOT used to take kids to and from school. That’s just how legislation is.

  • cjlane

    Yes, as someone who will be paying this increased tax, it seems reasonable to me, too, except that if you believe that the $10m will go even 50% to increased pothole filling, I’ve got a post office to sell you.

  • cjlane

    “You cannot have [increased bike use] without [discouraging driving].” OR “You cannot have [discouraged driving] without [increased bike use].”

    You don’t really think that, do you?

    Better to question John’s pairing in this article of:

    “part of a larger plan to discourage driving”


    “The purpose of street reconfigurations that make room for PBLs and dedicated bus lanes is not to stick it to motorists.”

    And the regular use of the misleading “capacity for X vehicles per day” when the real issue is the capacity per hour at peak times–sure, there’s tons of available lanes between 2 and 5 am most days–Same thing applies to the lakefront–we don’t need added path capacity, because there is plenty of space when no one is using it.

  • Just look around

    What’s wrong with discouraging driving? Public policy to encourage people to take transit instead of driving is the foundation of urban planning today. You can’t grow a city that’s already congested without converting at least a few driving lanes to dedicated transit lanes, reducing available parking, and congestion pricing. Any mayor with an open mind will quickly realize this. Our mayor listens to the experts. Too bad the public discourse is stuck in 1955.

  • skyrefuge

    Hm? Yes, I do really think that. I’m assuming that total trips remains constant, and thus, for there to be a shift in mode-share, one mode must shrink if another is to grow larger. Maybe it’s a slight linguistic stretch, but I believe that driving can be “discouraged” either by raising the cost of driving, or lowering the cost of an alternate mode (“cost” here extending beyond financial cost). It doesn’t *have* to be a negative thing that “discourages driving”, it can be a positive thing like faster buses, smoother bike lanes, or safer crosswalks that makes someone say “hey, I’m not going to drive for this trip now that I have these other nice options”. But in a space-constrained environment, the opportunities to improve conditions for one mode without negatively impacting another are relatively rare.

    And what’s clear is that the mayor has no qualms about negatively impacting driving in order to improve conditions for other modes. So it’s silly that Streetsblog gets all shocked when that truth is made clear.

  • JacobEPeters

    yeah I know, things have to be defined. I wish that there was a better distinction between vehicles used to move many people vs vehicles used to move few. Along with a distinction which highlighted the difference between something that is human powered versus electrically powered. There’ll always be something.

  • cjlane

    Jeez, terrible reading comp by me.

  • cjlane

    Perfectly possible to get more people on bikes w/o “discouraging driving” as you can just make biking so appealing that people do so while driving changes not at all, and it’s *definitely* possible to discourage driving and not have it result in more people on bikes.

    PS: The “shocked, shocked” tone is counterproductive, imo, but the folks here disagree. Whatever.

  • skyrefuge

    Again, I’m assuming the total number of trips, by any mode, remains constant. So under that constraint, no, it’s not possible to increase biking/transit/walking while driving changes not at all.

    I’m making that assumption because the goal to “increase bicycle use” that I quoted is actually a goal to increase bicycle mode share. It’s from Chicago’s Bike 2015 plan. The full line, the first of the two overall goals for the plan, is “To increase bicycle use, so that 5 percent of all trips less than five miles are by bicycle.” The only way to achieve that goal is for other mode usage to decrease as a percentage of all trips.

    I don’t think the mayor wants to “discourage driving” just for the hell of it, or because he doesn’t like the look of cars and would prefer that people just stay at home. Rather, he wants to “discourage driving” in order to make other, economically-efficient modes look more attractive in comparison.

  • cjlane

    But you just added transit and walking as other transportation modes.

    And the assumption that total trips remains the same is not a good one.

    So, yeah, sure, IF you hold transit trips constant, and IF you hold walking trips constant, and IF you hold total trips constants (NOTE: NONE of these will be true, over any reasonably long period–like 3 years–that is relevant to the brt/bike lane/”anti” car agenda of Chicago), then you can say that car trip count and bike trip count must move in opposite directions. But one can make a bunch of poor assumptions, and come up with any result–as is shown here at SB *all.the.time* with respect to future vehicle miles traveled–DOTs use out-dated and obviously inaccurate assumptions to ‘prove’ that VMT will keep growing fast–So what?

  • skyrefuge

    I think you’re losing the plot here a bit.

    In my initial post, I was using “bicycle” trips as a proxy for ALL non-car trips. I wanted to reference a clear quote from the city about their desire to alter the mode-share characteristics, and I didn’t know how to easily find the equivalent stated goals for pedestrians or transit, so I only used the quote about “bicycle” trips. Since I failed to track down statements for other modes, you are free to assume that the city’s true goal is to increase bicycle mode-share at the expense of pedestrian and transit mode-share, while car mode-share remains the same. I don’t think you’d find many people who would agree with that assumption, but it doesn’t contradict any of the facts I’ve presented, so go right ahead.

    I should have never used the word “constant”, and only referred to “mode-share”, which makes changes in the total number of trips over time irrelevant (because yes, of course that total number will change).

    So I’ll restate my premise. The city has a goal to increase bicycle mode-share. CMAP has a more-explicitly-stated goal to increase bicycle/pedestrian/transit mode-share at the expense of car mode-share: “It is generally desirable to decrease single-occupancy vehicle trips, as well as increase transit ridership and walking and biking trips” ( http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/about/2040/supporting-materials/process-archive/scenario-evaluation/scenario-outcomes/mode-share ). Combined, and taken to their logical conclusions, these are statements of a goal to “discourage driving”. The city and CMAP are not hiding that. Thus, Spielman reporting that fact is not an indication of any sort of bias.

    That is my point. Do you still disagree with it?


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