Slaying the Parking Bogeymen (Part 2)
By Matt Darst
In our industry, a number of narratives are taken for fact. Back in October’s Parking Today (“Slaying the Parking Bogeymen”), we addressed two of them:
• We searched in vain for the “Parking Bigfoot,” or proof that free-flow parking environments increase the amount of available parking space and related revenues. In the areas we studied, parking supply (or the parking footprint) actually shrank on blocks where motorists can park freely. Pay-by-space environments, on the other hand, improved both the likelihood of finding a parking space and meter revenue. Granted, the areas we sampled were very small, and more study is required before we claim the Parking Bigfoot is a hoax. It’s quite possible the myth of improved supply is alive and well, but simply obscured by a forest of data and waiting to be discovered.
• We put a stake in the heart of “vampire technologies,” the notion that customer-friendly options for paying parking meters improves compliance so much that it hurts citation issuance. Rather, we noted that falling productivity likely results from a number of factors, including fewer vehicle miles traveled, budgetary restrictions, changes in demand, etc. Convenient payment technologies themselves don’t necessarily suck the lifeblood from enforcement. We should avoid the urge to scream, “Dracula!” until all of the facts have been collected and investigated ... or until Vlad himself is standing over our beds.
As responsible parking and mobility professionals, we should question assumptions. We have unparalleled data at our fingertips. We must collect it and raise it like a torch to shed light on the truth, even if it’s monstrous. And the truth is: Customers expect convenient travel options; technology is constantly evolving; and the shared economy is growing. In an industry that is changing so quickly, we shouldn’t buy into myths so completely.
In this, Part 2 of “Slaying the Parking Bogeyman,” we’ll dig into some additional legends, questioning data assumptions and the goals
The Siren Song of Parking Meter Data
In Greek mythology, Sirens were birdlike creatures responsible for the deaths of unfortunate sailors. Mariners hearing the Song of the Sirens were powerless to resist. The songs led them and their hapless ships into storms or rocky shoals, drowning all onboard.
Some parking managers have been attracted to the false promise of meter data, much like sailors drawn to the Sirens’ song. Parking meter data, they argue, offer a cheap way of assessing occupancy values that can be used for wayfinding apps and to manage demand through pricing adjustments.
There are two major problems with using parking meter data as a proxy for occupancy: (1) motorists displaying evidence of a disability parking that often park for free and (2) lax enforcement.
As Peer Ghent, Senior Management Analyst for the LADOT, notes, “Forty-three percent of metered spaces are occupied by motorists who don’t pay. About 80% of them display disabled plates or placards.” Still, the use of placards is unevenly distributed. Not only are there huge differences neighborhood by neighborhood, there can even be significant differences from stall to stall on a block face. A meter that has high rates of both occupancy and payment can sit right next to a meter with significant occupancy but little in the way of payment. The largest disparity discovered in downtown LA was between payments and parking for durations of 2 to 20 minutes, paid time representing just a quarter of the time the average vehicle was actually parked.
Consequently, other data sources must be utilized, either to supplement or supplant meter payment data, in order to paint a picture of occupancy that allows for accurate rate recommendations and helps get motorists to their destinations. (Like Odysseus, parking administrators sometimes need to find their own way, plugging their ears and resisting the enticements of the Sirens.)
The ‘Deterrence Werewolf’
Recently, populist movements in cities across the US have urged governments to cut back on already declining parking citation issuance. Their reasoning: Parking citations should be used only to encourage compliance, and fine amounts should be set only as high as necessary to accomplish that goal. Fines, they note, should never be used to generate revenue.
Those recommendations miss the mark and should not be viewed as a silver bullet, or a panacea, to improve parking. In fact, officials who heed such recommendations risk being bitten by the “deterrence werewolf.”
This werewolf comes and goes in phases, much like the cycles of the moon. Often those phases correspond with municipal budget votes or elections.
The message in the critics’ howls is almost always the same: Enforcement is too aggressive and fine amounts are too high. They bristle at the idea that citations are designed to promote safety and access. They claim that managed enforcement simply promotes “quotas.”
They’re generally wrong.
As discussed in the October PT article, we know that citation volumes are falling in many towns and that compliance remains very low. Parking professionals understand the challenges before them better than anyone: Police departments and government agencies are facing tough budgets, perhaps reductions in staff, less overtime, changes in priorities or difficulties in hiring. These challenges may also impact the prosecution of fines.
Further, reducing fines for expired meters in front of stores reduces the likelihood that there will be an available parking space. If the existing fine values don’t deter illegal parking, it’s difficult to comprehend how reducing them suddenly will. Still, despite knowing these truths, we as parking professionals fear the deterrence werewolf.
Perhaps that fear is rooted in part in our knowledge that our fines schedules are less than optimal. Few ordinances establish a hierarchy of fines based on their egregiousness. Instead, they’re inconsistent, often establishing higher fines for nuisance violations than life safety citations.
The notion of deterrence rests on a series of assumptions about how motorists recognize, interpret, and react to the potential of a citation and subsequent attempts to collect it. The key questions in evaluating whether a system is properly deterring dangerous or unwelcome behavior include:
•What is the financial incentive for parking contrary to the law? Many decisions are a function of arbitrage, the rate for parking on-street and potentially receiving a fine versus the opportunity cost of paying for off-street parking.
•What is the likelihood of being cited for violating a parking ordinance? The higher the probability of being cited, the higher the deterrent value. If the probability of receiving a violation is low, it will be harder to deter undesirable driving behavior.
•What is the penalty for violating said law? The larger the fine or penalty (including the impact on a motorist’s ability to use his or her car or drive), the more likely drivers will be deterred from committing the violation.
Essentially, the deterrent value of a program is the mathematical output of the likelihood of being issued a citation multiplied by the magnitude of the punishment compared to opportunity costs (Risk = Cost x Probability).
As Soumya Dey, Director of Research and Technology Transfer for the (Washington, DC) District Department of Transportation, notes: “Some motorists internalize the risks and benefits associated with committing infractions and elect behaviors based on that evaluation. That means effective deterrence relies a lot upon perception.”
The perception of ample enforcement and aggressive penalties should lead to drivers rejecting certain courses of action as being too risky or too expensive. But if there’s a lack of enforcement, including few determinations of liability and weak collections, or if fines fail to correlate with the egregiousness of a violation, drivers may misinterpret the parking environment.
In fact, they may not feel threatened at all. Those drivers are harder to deter from undesirable behaviors.
A number of studies have been done regarding the deterrent impact of citations. Much of that work has been in the field of moving violations, a close cousin of the parking ticket. These studies generally show that increased citation issuance leads to improved behavior (such as reductions in fatal and nonfatal crashes).
Although often accompanied with public information campaigns, the citations themselves are primarily responsible for deterring negative behavior.
Though citations are unpopular, motorists will change their behavior when enforcement is an “anticipated consequence.” This fact should apply equally to moving and parking violations.
Deterrence is not the only objective, though. What of the “greater good,” the impact to society caused by negligent or dangerous behaviors?
“Recompense” is among the factors considered when calculating and collecting fines, and it’s the factor most often ignored by the werewolves.
Punishment must fit the crime. To the degree that society is harmed by people violating the law, the extent of that harm should be factored into the equation. We should not fool ourselves into thinking no societal harm results from illegal parking.
Every vehicle that overstays a meter during peak periods reduces business at a merchant or restaurant. Every double-parker makes our trips longer and robs us of our most precious asset: our time. Every disabled placard abuser makes the life of someone with a real disability harder. Blocked fire hydrants slow the ability to fight fires and put lives at risk. Illegally occupied loading zones prevent the movement of commerce.
In short, every second spent searching for parking or stuck in parking-related congestion counts.
So fines are about more than deterrence. They are about compensating the public through the government, and that’s a key component of what government does. In most cities, a portion of fine revenue helps support law enforcement, road improvements, and other investments that benefit the populous at large. By stressing the role of fines as a compensatory tool, government officials can defang the lycanthrope.
Too often, we trust in industry narratives without examining the data. As parking and mobility professionals, we need to challenge long-held views and think critically. One of the greatest benefits of “smart parking” is the availability of information. Those data, and our ability to find patterns that lead to insights, provide opportunities to test myths. In doing so, we can separate fact from fable, and make better decisions about how we spend our time and money.
Matt Darst, VP of Parking and Mobility Solutions at Xerox, can
be reached at Matthew.Darst@xerox.com
The Makings of a
‘Good Parking Ordinance’
Few ordinances establish a hierarchy of fines based on their egregiousness. A good parking ordinance creates three classes of infractions and “tiers” the fee structure based on those classes:
Citations promoting public safety, health and access for persons with disabilities. These typically are citations for blocking a hydrant or fire lane, blocking an alley or theater doors, parking under a fire escape, or parking an unauthorized vehicle in a space reserved for people with disabilities. These infractions should carry the highest fines.
Citations promoting the free flow of traffic and turnover. Double-parking, meter violations and similar infractions fall into this class.
Nuisance violations. Designed to promote general order and beautification, these include citations such as parking more than 12 inches from the curb or parking a pick-up truck on a residential street (yes, this is actually illegal in some cities). The fines for these violations should be the lowest, because the harm they create is relatively small.