“If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’


“If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here’

Some time ago, JVH and I were talking about the things that we take for granted. However, if we were to start again today, as the Irish say, “If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here.”

One question that I think needs asking is whether or not the whole structure and system of street parking enforcement is irredeemably flawed and broken, and it is past time that we started again.

Let’s think about the basics for a minute.

All over the world, streets are owned by “the state” in some way. Here in the UK, it is the Queens Highway, and we get to use it to travel, but actually have no presumptive right to park our cars. Elsewhere, “the state” is represented by the county or province or whatever, and it may well be OK to park unless there is a sign saying you can’t.

The almost universal system is to manage busy places by either saying, “No Parking” where a parked vehicle would block traffic, or managing parking some way. Over time, it has become normal to charge people to use the permitted parking — in part to pay the cost of the system; in part to use price to manage demand; and in part to make money for the operating authority.

Any parking manager who, in 2017, tells you that he hasn’t been given a revenue target is either a liar, delusional or not of this world.

Virtually all systems require users to predict how long they are going to be parked and to pay in advance; and this causes big problems.

Now, rather quickly, people saw a fundamental flaw to this cunning plan. Not everyone is either honest or law-abiding, and given half a chance, some people will cheat! They will park where they shouldn’t for their own convenience, or they will use the permitted parking but not pay the fee due.

Now I feel that these law-breakers fall into two distinct categories: Category A is the “chancer,” the people who just don’t believe that the rules apply to them and will dump their car wherever is convenient, and the system can go to hell on a handcart. Category B is the honest Joe or Joanna who miscalculates or misunderstands the rules.

Most parking systems started life being run by the police. They understand crime, punishment and deterrence — meaning that parking systems started out with an attached system of penalties for those who broke the rules.

So, pay to park and it’s a dollar; don’t pay and it’s a $10 or $100 ticket.

Here’s a problem straight away. If it’s a dollar to park and the fine is only $10, then if I can get away with a few non-payments without getting a ticket, it starts to make economic sense for me to ignore the rules and play the percentages, especially if the follow-up and collection process is not too robust so that tickets often get lost in the system.

Perhaps the simple answer is to make the ticket higher: Let’s go for a $100. I see two problems here.

First, as the fines/payment ratio gets bigger, people (aka voters) start to feel that the system is unfair. After all, if I pay a dollar to park, but because I got back to my car late, I have to pay a 100 times what I actually owed —that’s just plain wrong. People start talking about natural justice and Magna Carta; tar is heated and feathers are collected. And at the end of the day, parking managers work for someone who wants to get re-elected.

However, I think there’s a more serious issue.

Parking doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and when setting the cost for illegal parking, the fine has to be seen in the context of penalties for other crimes and misdemeanors. How does parking sit alongside, say, speeding? The former is an irritant that, at the time, may have no deleterious effects on anyone. The latter is dangerous and could kill. Here in the UK, the cost of a parking ticket can be higher than a speeding fine!

Whatever we do, I think we have to remember the bigger picture.

So, in economic terms, those in Category A may be behaving completely rationally. Perhaps 1 offender in 10 ever gets a ticket, and certainly in the UK, we seldom collect more than about 70% of the money due.

To impact on Category A, the only thing to do is to raise the chance that they will have to pay when they offend. If raising the fine proves to be problematic, then the only other thing would seem to be to increase the enforcement effort, so that the chance of being caught goes up.

Historically, this has meant more bodies walking the street, but now, perhaps, finally technology can be used to change the balance in favour of the system. Sensors, cameras and patrol vehicles using LPR talking to “smart” payment systems all increase detection, but inevitably create a backlash, particularly from drivers who see any enforcement as unfair.

Let’s not forget Category B. Honest people who perhaps can’t manage their time, or are easily confused by multiple signs and really do try to comply, but inevitably fall short. Sometimes they get a fine and kind of feel that it’s all a bit unfair, but accept that they have been a bad boy and have to stand in the naughty corner. With new systems that will up the capture rate, there is a real danger that they will become resentful and feel that the penalty for their human fragility is becoming too onerous and needs changing.

Worldwide, I don’t know how much money is collected each year in parking fines — $10 billion to $20 billion, it must be of this order.

A figure of this scale tells us two things. Parking fines are economically important, and regardless of the rationality of the system, they can’t just be dropped. But it also tells us that the system just doesn’t work!

Enforcement is meant to deter non-compliance, and if millions or even billions of tickets are being issued each year, it isn’t working and needs fixing.

What do I suggest? I have no idea, but I think we are well past the time when, as an industry, we need to think the unthinkable and look for a Plan B.

You might have seen the recent announcement that Westminster City Council is going levy a 50% parking surcharge on diesel vehicles, starting as a trial period in April. This comes despite recent research that suggests that electric cars actually produce more street-side pollution than the equivalent diesel.

So, never let the facts stand in the way of a headline.

More to the point: How are they going to determine just what is and isn’t a diesel? My car’s a diesel, but there are no “badges” or markings that say this. The only way to determine its status is to check with the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency), our DMV. Checking takes time and costs about $6.25, and the city can’t easily issue a parking ticket after I drive the vehicle away. Oops!

Article contributed by:
Peter Guest
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