Civic Salt: There’s no free lunch (or parking)

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I recently paid $60 worth of parking tickets to the great city of Portland. I returned to my car a few hours later to see a fresh one fluttering in the breeze. The city’s version of a middle finger. It is impossible to have a clean slate.

The city’s new parking app apparently has a voracious appetite for error as well as transaction fees. Being the able, literate, and flexible person that I am, I’ll contest it. Or I won’t and will end up paying another $60 worth of tickets in a few months.

Paying those tickets was a begrudging task I finally completed after being repeatedly haunted by the prospect of finding my car booted. A day earlier I got a speeding ticket and a few minutes after that, at speeds well within the legal limit, hit a squirrel.

Parking and driving is a privilege. There is no God-given right to drive a death-mobile. I’m surely inconvenienced by this driving habit of mine. Possibly more so by the speeds of my habit. Sixty dollars and three months worth of parking tickets? It’s a hassle. A hundred dollars in speeding tickets? A slightly more annoying hassle.

The boot? That would have ruined my day. And inevitably, a few hours of inconvenience later, I would have been fine.

But thanks to the color of my skin and the place of my birth I’ve got a pretty good deal on this earth. Sure, I’m a visible queer person in this increasingly hostile place where we find ourselves. Sure, I still have a female-presenting body. But even still, it’s a sweet deal to make enough money to see parking tickets and car boots as inconveniences. My brain, body, and bank account are able to withstand a bit of harassment and inconvenience now and again.

The same can’t be said of many in this state. Maine is poor. Lacking better transit options, working people have to rely on the death-mobiles to make a living. A boot on someone else’s car could have meant missing work, getting fired, being late on a rent check, and inevitably falling into one of those gaping holes in our social safety net.

Our city’s civic process caters to inconvenience. It caters to those like the East End resident who strung up a big banner on Monument Street advocating for residential parking permits. That person has the privilege of being a vocal and visible advocate for what is, at its worst, an inconvenience.

But the inconvenience to that resident would be a game-changer for the working people, island commuters, and downtown commuters who rely on the sweet, sweet free parking on Munjoy Hill.

Not being able to park near your house is an inconvenience. Getting your gorgeous ocean view blocked is an inconvenience. Neither of those problems decide whether someone will stay in their home or not. They won’t decide whether a kid will get food that night. They are the advocacy pet projects of the privileged and misguided.

Unfortunately, our civic process caters to them and thus to inconvenience.

For those who have the privilege of advocating for policies to remedy inconvenience, I have a suggestion: How about using your considerable energies to help those people who are barely getting by? How about reforming our parking practices? Or using your energies to advocate for better low- and middle-income housing? The possibilities are endless and hopefully thankless.

But if you’re enraged at having to walk an extra block to your house, maybe that’s too much to ask.

Emma Burnett of Portland is a civic technology evangelist and a communications and community organizing professional. Find her on Twitter @elburnett.

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