The Law of Unintended Consequences Strikes in Providence

This news item kinda reminds us of Brendan Behan’s line about his inability to envision a human condition so wretched that the appearance of a policeman couldn’t make worse. That was hyperbole. Clever but hyperbolic. Still, when the government sets out to help the local private market, it may not be a bad idea to be skeptical. Case in point: this dispatch from Providence, Rhode Island.

As anyone who has gone shopping during the mercantile saturnalia that follow Thanksgiving knows, going out there on Black Friday and thereafter is not for the weak of limb and short of wind. It can be a zoo out there. And one phenomenon of the season, that is worrisome to merchants is the seasonal parking shortage. So the city of Providence decided to give the shopping public and the merchants striving for their fair share of pre-Christmas spending, a break. The city announced that during the holiday shopping season the public could park free on downtown city streets — parking meters would not have to be fed one’s change, and shoppers could park indefinitely without fear of getting a ticket. Sounds great. But did it work? No.

It turned out that, whereas shoppers get to shopping after 9:00 a.m. when stores are open, downtown government workers are already at work by that time. So those workers, being no dummies, proceeded to park on the street before the arrival of shoppers, secure in the knowledge that parking limits would not be enforced. So by the time the shoppers got downtown, all parking spaces were taken by public employees’ cars that once parked, stayed put all day long.

Net result: parking in downtown Providence was worse this year. So says NBC News, in an article by Jim Taricani, entitled Free Holiday Parking Hurting Some Merchants, Dec. 10, 2009.

And so it goes.