Coming home from a tennis match today, I enter one of Columbus’ newest features — a traffic circle. It’s not really a high-volume intersection, so it’s been pretty smooth sailing for its first couple months. But sure enough today, as I’m rounding the circle, a dude entering doesn’t check his left to see me coming and I have to jam on the breaks to avoid hitting him.

And, of course, he’s glaring at me with a set of eat-guano-and-die teeth. I hold my rage in check, merely holding up a hand in a shrug instead of my more likely response using just one finger.

It reminded me of one of the more stressful events on our recent driving tour, in Santa Fe, N.M. This was one of two unplanned stops. The other was Grand Junction, Co., and they became our two favorite stops on the whole trip. Santa Fe’s an adorable, artsy town of just 67,000 people. The only problem is, often all 67,000 — plus a fair number of tourists like us — try to jam themselves into about six square blocks of downtown.

We found a metered spot early and kept feeding it throughout the morning and early afternoon, until our change dwindled and we were ready to move on to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum. So we surrendered our spot and followed crude maps to the museum, not realizing until way too late that:

  • The museum was probably only half a mile from where we’d already been parked.
  • There was no public parking at the museum.
  • There was no paid parking at the museum.
  • The only people allowed to park on the streets near the place, which were all residential avenues, were people who lived on those avenues. They had parking stickers.

As I’m passing the museum for the fifth time, with no better strategy than what I’d started with, the temper flared.

I can’t tell you all of what I said. Even if I could remember the words, I’m sure they weren’t polite. I remember, at the end, shouting, “I’M NOT WIRED FOR THIS!” as if that were some revelation or steered us to some solution.

In this case, the solution was pointing the car out of town and forgoing the museum entirely. Sorry, Georgia.

Down the road a piece, when I was finally ready to listen to the radio again, we popped in an ep of “99% Invisible,” and Roman Mars starts talking about the challenges and anxiety that come with parking. In this episode, he talks about the hidden costs of free parking, to include not only subsidized costs but wasted gas from circling parking vultures. He also talk about a San Francisco experiment to have meters priced variably, based on supply and demand, in an effort to always have a spot or two open on a block.

Downtown Columbus has nothing but free parking on its downtown streets, at least for now. But the thought of trying to nab a spot on a Friday night or Saturday is ludicrous. As much as I like free stuff, the city might be better served to rent those spots in increments of nickels, dimes and quarters. Aside from this leaving more spaces open to quick-stop shoppers or lunch visitors, it will have the added benefit of driving more traffic to downtown’s underused parking garages, which are often free and shaded.

The caveat is this: Towns banking on tourism — like Santa Fe and hopefully Columbus, with the launch of the new urban whitewater course — should make sure that people unfamiliar with its streets can find the right places to put their cars while they spend money in our town.

Like the mayor of Bogota said in the wonderful documentary “Urbanized,” curbside parking isn’t a right. But let’s not make parking such a stroke-inducing affair that people simply point their cars out of town.

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