No, Byko, the rich aren’t using electric vehicles to steal parking spots

Welcome to what sadly may become a regular Eyes on the Street feature: The [sic] Byko Files.

What are The [sic] Byko Files? Well, [sic] comes from sic erat scriptum, Latin for “thus it was written,” and is usually inserted in a quote to indicate when the original speaker—not the subsequent writer—made some sort of mistake; and Byko refers to that curmudgeon-in-chief at the Philadelphia Daily News, Stu Bykofsky, who has made a career out of swapping stodgy facts for dodgy opinions. And Files just has a nice ring to it.

Today’s topic: “How the rich steal parking spots from you”.

Upon seeing that headline, you might have thought: Finally, someone is discussing how many developers can—very often by right—remove a street parking space by building a private garage and curb cut!

That trend has caused thousands upon thousands of on-street parking spots to go away just so some rich jerk doesn’t have to circle the block like the rest of us. And I mean it when I say “rich jerk,” because off-street parking increases housing prices and apartment rents a bunch, making these units unaffordable to hard working middle income folks like me.

You might be right about all that (you definitely are), but you clearly don’t know Stu.

No, instead our appropriately named columnist is stewing about a city policy that allows owners of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles (EVs) to pay thousands of dollars to install curbside electric charging terminals near their homes and convert the adjacent on-street parking spot into an electric vehicle only zone.

Byko characterizes this as a loophole enabling a land grab by wealthy Tesla owners at the expense of their neighbors.

That simply isn’t the case.

But before we get into the more fundamental problems with Byko’s latest, let’s review some of his inaccuracies and misrepresentations first.

Let’s start by pointing to the two facts that Byko begrudgingly admits: (1) there are currently 15 EV parking permits in Philadelphia, with another five in the works—that’s about 1 per 100,000 residents; and (2) these aren’t actually private spots: these are EV-only parking spots, meaning anyone with an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid can park there.

So as we go through this exercise, please keep in mind that we’re talking about a policy that literally impacts tens of Philadelphians every day.

Byko begins his article with “DID YOU KNOW you can reserve a permanent, on-street parking space right in front of your home if you drive a pricey electric vehicle (EV)?”

First, the spots aren’t “permanent” – as the electric vehicle parking space application makes clear, they can be revoked for all sorts of reasons, most sensibly if the homeowner stops driving an EV.

Nor are these spaces “reserved” for any one person, despite the insinuation. They are merely “reserved” for anyone electric vehicles and hybrid plug-ins, although they won’t be able to recharge without the homeowner’s okay (y’know, because it’ll show up on their PECO bill).

Then there is the question of how “pricey” these vehicles are. Stu seems to believe that electric vehicles are reserved for the “rich” and the “wealthy”, as though only hedge funds sold them.

Sure, a Tesla—the only type of EV Stu mentions—is pricey. But they aren’t the only electric vehicles. A Nissan Leaf costs just over $21,000.*

And plug-in hybrids can also park in these spots, a fact Byko apparently thinks isn’t worth mentioning.* 

Philadelphia Parking Authority spokesman Marty O’Rourke says most of the EV parking permits have gone to hybrids so far.

As battery prices drop, so too do the cost of these green machines. Eventually, they’ll be competitive with conventional vehicles, even without the thousands in state and federal subsidies.

Even though an electric car might cost more upfront today, estimated gas savings around $5,000 per year means a Volt pays for itself in just a few years.** Short of walking or biking, there’s probably no cheaper way of getting around in the long term than an electric vehicle – especially if you live or work in an area underserved by public transit.

Calling this policy a “land grab for the wealthy,” Byko claims it provides a “bonus worth more than $100,000 a year,” to EV owners, suggesting either $100,000 is how much it costs to park in a garage, or that the EV parking space adds $100,000 in value to the home.

If it’s the former, well, the most expensive monthly parking in Philadelphia that I could find on was $515 per month, which is $6,180. Pricey stuff to be sure, but a mere four figures, not six.

If it’s the latter, then sign me up. Sign us all up. You could buy a Tesla, pay for the spot and have home equity to spare if that were the case. But given that so few have taken advantage of this incredible deal to parlay the purchase of a $20,000 car into adding $100,000 to the value of their home, I suspect that number was simply pulled out of thin air.

Byko also suggests that the EV permit is a mere $150 per year, plus a few other trivial fees, what he calls “some cash, such as the installation [cost] of the charging apparatus.” That charging apparatus requires a licensed electrician and will run you $1,200 to $2,500, according to a Philly article from 2014. There’s also an application fee of $50 and an installation fee that ranges between $150 and $500.

Byko also mistakenly blames nameless “city planners” and Mayor Nutter for the EV parking policy. The real target of his ire should be the Democratic nominee for mayor, Jim Kenney, who introduced EV parking legislation back in 2007.

To Byko’s credit, $150 a year is low for a parking spot in the city. But that’s an argument for raising permit prices generally—regular on-street permits are just $35 per year—not for prohibiting on-street parking of electric vehicles. Parking is hard to find in many neighborhoods because the really low price induces overly high demand for a fixed supply. Raise the price of parking and more drivers would chose to park elsewhere or get rid of their cars altogether. That would also reduce traffic.

But Byko doesn’t care about all that. Rather, he says the spots are “unfair because only EVs can park in EV spaces while EVs can also park in regular spaces.”

He concludes, “It’s bad policy – and unfair – to give EV owners private possession of public space.”

By that logic, there’s another group of homeowners unfairly grabbing public space: the disabled.

Stu should be particularly cheesed about their ability to “reserve a permanent, on-street parking space right in front of [their] home.”  The PPA estimates there are over 4,000 street parking spots reserved for individuals with a Disability Parking Placard or Plate. If fifteen EV spots merits an article, Byko surely has a book on the way for disabled parking – which is free, by the way!

Then again, maybe Byko can appreciate that some of us should suffer a slight inconvenience if it alleviates the suffering of others. And if he can see that as a legitimate reason for reserving a setting aside thousands of on-street parking spots, maybe he could also understand why we might want to set aside a few more spots to encourage—or merely allow—residents to drive electric vehicles?

There are legitimate policy reasons for encouraging homeowners to purchase electric vehicles, after all. Improved air quality in a city with shockingly high asthma rates is one. Cheaper gas for the rest of us is another. Toss in the long-term impact of global warming and the geopolitical implications of America’s reliance on foreign oil, and it kind of seems like a no-brainer, no?

But even if you don’t buy that line of reasoning, you can buy this: the current policy privatizes the cost of building public infrastructure that every vehicle will likely need in the not-so-distant future, just as surely as cars need streets, signs, and signals today.

But Byko says that encouraging homeowners to invest thousands of dollars in recharging stations is “unfair”. Instead, the PPA should build charging stations in their garages and parking lots, he says.

First off, that’s already happening.

More importantly, relying entirely on the PPA to build EV infrastructure would effectively shift the cost burdens from EV owners to everyone else who’s ever paid for parking in Philly. That strikes me as less fair than losing a spot or two on a block.

EV parking permits are a way to encourage private residents to pay for public goods, which some seem to do gladly. In a town that threw tomatoes at Mayor Richardson Dilworth trying to get rid of parking in the middle of Broad Street, that’s incredible.

And that’s fitting. Because, in a way, Byko’s writing is pretty incredible, too.

*CORRECTION: These sentences originally referred to a Chevy Volt as an all electric vehicle and a Nissa Leaf as a plug-in hybrid. The opposite is the case: the Leaf is 100% electric and the Volt is a plug-in hybrid. 

**UPDATE: Some readers pointed out that the original gas savings estimate of $10,000 seemed too high – that figure came from estimates provided on electric vehicle manufacturer websites, and may be inflated. That would be about $200 per week in gas. We have revised the estimate down to $5,000 to reflect $100 a week, which I’m told by regular reverse commuters is around what they spend. “Savings” is a very subjective concept, and I regret not addressing it more critically.

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