Last month at a meeting of the Newton City Council Public Safety & Transportation (PS&T) committee, during a discussion of variable parking pricing, committee chair Jay Ciccone drew a racially insensitive comparison between the inconvenience of having to park farther away from your destination than you might like and the Jim Crow laws that got Rosa Parks arrested in 1955 for refusing to move to the back of an Alabama bus.

Some necessary context. Variable or dynamic parking pricing is technically a meter rate scheme where parking rates are periodically reset to encourage optimal parking use in a commercial area. Optimal parking use is defined as something like 85% occupancy, created by setting a price that’s not so high that it discourages all parking in a high-demand area, but high enough to create an open spot or two during peak periods. This kind of on-street parking use has been shown to generate turnover, to reduce excess traffic from circling for spaces, and generally to create more commercial activity.

A key component of a dynamic pricing implementation is to have a meaningful price distinction between high-demand parking — such as along Union Street in Newton Centre — and nearby low-demand parking — such as the Pleasant Street lots in Newton Centre. With a large enough price difference to encourage price-sensitive drivers to park in the low-demand areas, variable pricing creates some regular vacancy in the high-demand areas .

After extensive staff and committee discussion that was almost uniformly enthusiastic in favor of the proposal, and before public comment, Councilor Ciccone expressed two misgivings. What follows is a transcript of his expressing his first concern. The full audio is here. Councilor Ciccone’s comments start at 1:45:38. 

I have made every attempt to transcribe accurately. I did not transcribe “uhs” and “ums” and the like. If I have made an error or errors, please let me know in the comments and I will update.

Okay I’m just going to add … add a couple of things. I mean. The one thing that I’m concerned about: law suits. We’re telling people, okay, we’re going to be raising the price here. And, well, this guy can afford to park there now but this guy can’t. So now we’re moving him into the next level back or maybe even two levels back because he can’t afford to park in that place now because we have this dynamic parking set in place. So, it’s kind of like, if you think back, telling Rosa Parks, well you can’t sit in the front of the bus. Okay, so I’m really concerned about that. Okay, that’s the first thing.

The comment betrays a disturbing ignorance of basic civil rights laws. Councilor Ciccone is the appointed chair of a standing committee of our city’s legislative body. A committee that has oversight over the Newton Police Department, a city agency responsible for enforcing civil rights. And, he doesn’t seem to understand the fundamental difference between legal and illegal discrimination. How does he hold the chair of such an important committee?

The comment betrays a disturbing ignorance of the history of Jim Crow laws and trivializes their impact. Rosa Parks was arrested protesting a pervasive system of legalized oppression based on skin color. Comparing the struggles of Black Americans under Jim Crow to a driver who chooses to walk a few blocks rather than pay an extra dollar or two to park is just plain offensive.

The comment betrays an unfortunate ignorance of the current state of parking regulation in the city. The city already has (legal) price discrimination. Only a small portion of on-street parking is subject to parking fees. At some remove from every metered space in the city, there is a legal, free parking space. In some parts of the city there are differently priced parking close to each other. In other words, it’s already possible that someone can’t afford to park in a paid spot and has to walk to what Councilor Ciccone refers to as “a level back.” If price distinction among nearby parking spaces is a problem, it’s a problem that already exists.

And, the comment is just lazy and ill-informed. We have been discussing variable priced parking in this city for at least ten years. Councilor Ciccone has been the chair of one of the two committees with jurisdiction over variable priced parking for multiple terms. Variable priced parking has been implemented in municipalities across the country. The spirited discussion at the committee table demonstrated that his colleagues are highly knowledgeable about what’s happening in other cities and about the arguments for and against variable priced parking. If he has a good faith concern about the risk of litigation, he has had ample time to look into whether or not there’s been litigation in other jurisdictions that have implemented variable priced parking. He has access to a fully staffed legal department.

The hook for Councilor Ciccone’s comparison to Rosa Parks was not a good faith concern, but an unresearched, unsubstantiated conjecture, easily refuted with a Google search or a phone call.

Next: it gets worse.