PARKING PANIC!!! And the Reactionary Nature of Local TV News

Local TV news does more than its share of ridiculous things, but this one from WPTZ really got my goat. It’s about the modest changes to North Winooski Avenue approved by Burlington City Council Monday night. And it’s called…

Businesses in Burlington’s Old North End unsure of their future as North Winooski Parking Plan is set to happen

AAAAUUGGGHHH Parking Panic!!!!!!!!

The story, such as it was, quoted two — count ’em, two — Old North End business owners worried about the plan’s reduction of 40 parking spaces along the corridor.

This sort of thing is the red meat of local TV news: Raising fears about the unknown.

It’s at the heart of the constant attention to crime and disaster and health scares real or imagined, and it rears its predictable head whenever a significant change is proposed. It triggers an emotional reaction, which is how local TV news makes its bones.

To WPTZ and its two merchants, the Winooski Street redesign is a threat to local business. There’s no thought given to how the redo might enhance local business by providing a more inviting streetscape for pedestrians and bikers. That’s been the experience of cities everywhere that introduce bike- and walk-friendly reforms. Car traffic on a particular street will drop, but total traffic will jump. And it’s a lot easier and safer for bikers or pedestrians to patronize neighborhood businesses. Church Street is the liveliest part of downtown Burlington, and it’s not because parking is easy.

But that’s too nuanced a tale for local TV news.

This one story is an irritant, but the phenomenon has a more insidious impact. People tend to vastly overestimate crime rates because of the prevalence of crime on TV news. Many years ago, we took a driving trip around the Canadian Maritimes (highly recommended, btw). At one point we stopped at a gas station in rural Nova Scotia. Our windshield had a little chip in it. The pump jockey pointed at the chip and said, “Bullet?”

Turns out that cable providers in Nova Scotia carried Detroit stations as a vehicle for American network shows — but it brought the nightly crash-and-burn of Detroit TV news to audiences who knew nothing else about the city. The attendant saw the chip and our Michigan plates, and based on his TV-only exposure to Detroit, he assumed we must have been caught in a gunfight.

This does more than dissuade Canadians from visiting Michigan. It also heightens resistance to reforms in policing, bail, sentencing and parole. (And fuels the racial stereotypes that often underlie fears of “letting the wrong people out.”)

The same thing happens when TV news turns the elimination of a mere 40 parking spaces into a story about potential neighborhood devastation. It fuels the opposition, making positive reform that much harder. How much more of this are we going to get when the rest of the Winooski Avenue changes are rolled out? How much harder will it be for elected officials to enact reforms when the voices of the opposition are being megaphoned by the media?

Meanwhile, the city of Paris is making wholesale changes to its center, creating a huge “no-drive” zone that encourages mass transit, bicycling and walking. By all accounts it’s working a treat. In fact, the initial stages worked so well that the Mayor ran for re-election, and won, by promising (among other things) to remove 70,000 parking spaces from city streets.

Turns out, people like it when they encounter streetscapes that treat all modes of transportation equally instead of bowing down at the altar of King Car. Turns out, local businesses thrive when people can reach them by foot or on two wheels. Cities that move in this direction make their downtowns and neighborhoods more inviting, not less.

Plus, there’s that whole climate change thing. But even if fossil fuel consumption wasn’t a mortal threat to the planet, a multifaceted approach to transportation design pays huge benefits for cities that take the risk. But local TV news feeds into our already exaggerated fear of the unknown. The WPTZ story is one small brick in that wall.

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