Ron Kokish, Mature Content

By Ron Kokish

We got our first family car, a blue Nash Statesman, early in 1948. It was a luxury we mostly used on weekends. On Sunday evenings, my father parked it in front of our Manhattan apartment building, where it stayed the week. After school, I often played stickball on the street where the Statesman waited for us. 

When I left New York (NY) in 1964, it might take hours to find a parking space within a half of a mile from home. Half-hour searches were routine and Dad couldn’t leave the car parked for more than a day, because street-sweeping regulations required daily movement. Shopping trips meant depositing shoppers at stores while drivers cruised. Dinner parties required drivers to drop off their passengers, park the car anywhere they could, and traverse significant distances on foot (or even by taxi) to rejoin the party. Going home reversed that process, after which came the nightly routine of looking for that coveted overnight parking space. 

Thus, 18 years after admiring the Statesman from my bedroom window all week, private automobiles in NY, or any large city, while still prestigious, involved considerable expense, responsibility and inconvenience — and stickball in the streets was history. People like my father, who wanted to stay in the city and also loved their cars, adjusted and did what they had to. Fast forward six more decades, Dad is long gone and NY is poised to require a $23 fee just for driving into or through the gridlocked city. Locally, Glenwood’s rush hour creep has become an inevitable inconvenience, and little Carbondale, whose streets were paved less than 50 years ago, is developing a Mobility and Access Plan (MAP). Times keep changing, don’t they?

Carbondale’s MAP process comes just as the national debate about America’s automobile love affair, turned addiction, is raising a new question: Who owns America’s streets? Back when I played stickball alongside the resting Statesman, streets were multi-purpose. They were for getting from A to B, of course, but they were also for stickball, impromptu forums, markets, festivals, trash disposal, storage, resting, everyday socializing and more. As we shaped our post-WWII world, we gradually squeezed out non-motorized uses. Increasingly, motorists (which includes most of us) began believing that streets belonged only to them (us?), and that non-motorized uses are something to be grudgingly tolerated as long as they didn’t much inconvenience the cars going from A to B. 

Recently though, motorists are increasingly being challenged by pedestrians, bikers, skaters, diners and even people who just want to hang out. Streets are, after all, nothing more than publicly owned real estate and people are beginning to question the way that real estate is currently allocated. 

Carbondale saw this conflict during public hearings about improving Eighth Street when neighborhood residents demanded that on-street parking remain untouched. It’s an interesting view. Our vehicles are private property. Is the public obligated to provide storage for our private property? Trustees avoided the issue by focusing on the cost of various alternatives and choosing a more inexpensive design that conveniently left 95% of parking spaces untouched.

After our Covid summer, suggestions to periodically close parts of Main Street to automobiles were met by plaintive cries from merchants afraid to lose business if customers couldn’t drive to their businesses’ front doors. Should commerce be prioritized over people wanting to rest, play, dine and socialize in the downtown core? And what evidence is there that a de-motorized core would reduce rather than enhance commerce there? 

Last week, I talked with Artspace consultants about reducing parking requirements for new developments in favor of more badly needed housing in the Town Center Development. “Unlikely,” they said, because trustees don’t want to stress nearby businesses by making parking more difficult. Carbondalians espouse laudable sustainability intentions but, to date, have been reluctant to endure inconvenience or take risks on behalf of their espoused beliefs. 

Reducing energy consumption by moving away from motorized personal vehicles is national policy. If Carbondale is serious about building a sustainable future, we can reduce parking requirements for new developments to allow for more badly needed affordable homes. We can levy hefty taxes on each automobile registered within the town. We can require private vehicles to pay for short and long-term storage on public streets. We can lower speed limits and regularly fine violators. We can add a dedicated mill levy and/or sales tax and use our added revenue for improved infrastructure — beginning with a comprehensive minibus system for people to easily get from any place to any place else in town, sans private automobiles. In short, we can quickly become very unfriendly to cars and very friendly to non-motorized users of our public real estate and, unlike NY, we can do it now before it’s too late to do much good. 

The MAP process offers Carbondale a unique opportunity to lead the region and even the country. But seizing our opportunity means risking our comforts and our short-term economic well-being. Do you have the courage? Do I? We’ll find out in a few months, when the draft version of the MAP is ready for public scrutiny and public comment. 

Mature Content is a monthly featured column from Age-Friendly Carbondale.