Contrarian: Stupidity City

Sometimes it takes a fool to drive the dumbness out of public life

Einstein once said that only two things are infinite — the universe, and human stupidity. And he had to admit he wasn’t really sure about the universe.

I can accept the notion of infinite stupidity. It’s stupidness that drives me nuts. Stupidness is stupidity in wingtips. It’s the inexcusable tarted up as policy and procedure. It’s rich pay-to-play attorneys on the board of the local government reform group. It’s the park service guarding an armed camp called Independence Hall. It’s the Port Authority chiseling a buck a month from E-ZPass holders — a fee for helping unclog bridge traffic.

But no one does stupidness quite like downtown parking operators, the greedy nickel-and-dimers who grant deep discounts to rush-hour commuters while gouging short-term visitors — the tourists, shoppers, diners and businesspeople who make up the lifeblood of Center City commerce. This sorry state of affairs has festered so long that I promised last November to either put together a citizens’ group to change it or get a good story about why I failed.

It’s been 10 months. I’ve helped make exactly one small dent in the problem. One very small dent. Hardly anyone’s even noticed it. But it’s given me a pretty good idea of what it will take to cure downtown parking of its chronic pricing stupidness once and for all.

Each March for the past four years, there have been parking lots around the Convention Center that have jacked up their rates during the Flower Show, just to rip off any ignorant out-of-towner too rattled by traffic to cruise around for a better price. The media coverage has become a kind of spring ritual. Tourism officials, convention managers and City Council members all sputter with impotent outrage that the extortionate rates make Philadelphia look like a den of thieves.

The big parking company leaders pin the blame on a few small operators. Some steamed Joe Schmoe from the suburbs, having laid out 19 bucks to park for less than two hours, swears he’s never coming back downtown again.

As the whole charade played out once again this past March, a simple solution dawned on me. Having spent some hours poring over the strangled language of the city parking code, I knew that garage and lot owners are required to file their rate changes with the city. If the code were amended to allow only one rate change per calendar month, it would put a stop to the weeklong rate hikes during the Flower Show.

I e-mailed a proposal to an aide for Councilman Jim Kenney. I think Kenney hates stupidness even more than I do. He’s spent almost 14 red-faced and flustered years in City Council, which is Stupidness Central. I’m afraid that someday Kenney is going to have a terrible stroke.

Within days, I got word that Kenney wanted to run with the idea. A few weeks later, he introduced the one-rate-per-month amendment to the city’s parking code. It passed Council unanimously, and Mayor Street signed it in July. Visitors to the next Flower Show will find Philadelphia just a little less stupid than it was the year before.

I was pleased, but I was also kind of appalled. None of those who cried to the press each spring about Flower Show parking rates had ever bothered to figure out this one-rate-per-month notion? These are people who guard the city’s image for a living. Presumably they’re far more motivated than I ever was to fix this thing, and yet all they did for years was complain. How did such a simple, common-sense solution elude so many smart and responsible people for years on end?


These are probably the wrong questions. Stupidness persists because every human system is achingly dysfunctional. Among a certain group of interdependent Center City decision-makers, the Flower Show parking problem was irritating enough to notice, but far too minor for any one of them to risk rocking the boat by changing it. It took someone from outside this tight little circle to exercise a little imagination and effort, someone who really had nothing personally to gain — and nothing to lose other than a small piece of his sanity. In other words, it took a fool. Me.

Don’t underestimate the power of fools. It takes a fool to humble the mighty, since the fool who disregards his self-interest can’t be bought out or bullied.

Any day now, the City Planning Commission will unveil a draft plan for Center City parking. The plan has been almost two years in the making. City Council hearings are likely to follow. That’s when the depths of parking-rate stupidness will be plumbed. Hundreds of businesses would benefit from parking rates regulated to make downtown more appealing. But self-interest can’t carry the day. Too many restaurants and retailers rely on validated customer-parking discounts from the parking companies. Most won’t want to risk losing those deals by agitating for rate regulation. It’s going to take a handful of disinterested fools to lead the way.

Meanwhile, shoveling the sands of stupidness against the tide is an unending chore. The Port Authority, an agency for whom stupidness is second nature, has shut down the walkway on the Ben Franklin Bridge “due to the heightened level of alert on transit systems.” This is truly world-class stupidness. Ask anyone who has studied terrorism. No one on foot can carry enough explosives to harm anything as massive as a bridge. The PATCO train line isn’t endangered by the open walkway, either. New York has kept the walkways open on East River bridges — even the ones that carry transit lines. That’s a decision made by people who actually have an excuse for being paranoid. I think of the poor working stiff who needs to save a few bucks in bus fare by walking from Camden to some lousy low-paying job in Philly every morning. Then I think of the six-figure stooges in blue suits who shut down that walkway just to make themselves feel useful for a change. And I want to go and smack the stupidness out of them.

What fool is with me?