European Parking News

Charges vs. Fines; Itís Back to the Gulf; And 70,000 Spaces

December, 2017

Peter Guest

Another day and another column due, and here’s the thing, news-wise absolutely nothing seems to have happened that is worth spending ink on.

For sure, the European Parking Association has had its biennial congress, and lots of stuff was said and a few awards made. The trouble is that two years ago, when I attended I realized that I was listening to a speech that I had been hearing, with minor variations, for the last 10, 20 years — long on earnest intent and vision, rather shorter on progress and achievements.

Only the buzz words and jargon seem
to change.

So, I didn’t go this time and perhaps missed a life-changing experience, although I suspect not. I got cynical when I was about 10; you would never guess would you?

Over the last months, I have been spending quite a lot of time in the Gulf again. And one piece of information that I picked up got me thinking.

Many years ago, when God was a child and I worked in London, there was a rule of thumb that set the parking fine at about 10 times the hourly parking charge. There was a certain logic to this. If you parked for the day and paid, and the charge was X, then a working day would cost 8X. So, if the fine was 10X, then the fine deterred, in theory.

Now the flaws in this are obvious; not everyone gets caught and even if they are they may not pay. And with the system at the time, the fine died after six months. Not surprisingly, by the time the system was abandoned, there were probably more people parking illegally than legally in central London.

In the 1990s, the system started changing with a shift from police to municipal enforcement and, at the same time, parking fines, as a multiplier of an hourly charge, started to creep up. Evidence from the “new” system is not unambiguous, and I think that it is far from clear whether the level of non-compliance is any better.

What we do know is that in most municipalities, the income from fines is at least as large as the money paid for legal parking.

When accounts are published, the annual outcry in certain newspapers about “rip-off parking scams” and “cash cow motorists” have actually become more predictable than death and taxes. I have yet to see a single column inch decrying the high levels of criminality among motorists that these figures represent.

Why did the Gulf make me think of all this? In Abu Dhabi, UAE, they have adopted a very different perspective on the balance between parking charges and parking fines. In my opinion, the parking charge is very low, 2 or 5 dirhams per hour. That’s about 60 cents to one and a half dollars, this in one of the richest places in the world. By contrast, the fine is 200 dirhams or 60 dollars, 100 times the parking fee. So, a small charge and a big fine.

Does it work? The hell it does. Tens of thousands of fines are issued every month even though, because of their legal system, the probability of having to pay the fine is just about 100%.

All of this forces me to one inescapable conclusion. Regardless of the parking charge, the parking fine and the chances of being penalized, millions of motorists will break the law when using the public parking system. My contention is that the logic of a street parking system is irredeemably broken, and it is past time that we started to look for something better.

It is interesting that over the last decade there has been a lot of technological innovation in the field, but almost all of this has been targeted at better ways of detecting and enforcing, not at reducing non-compliance. I suggest that the only positive move has been with the advent of pay-by-phone parking, where the systems that send a text when the payment is expiring actually encourage compliance.

I think, as an industry, we need to look at how to do this better.


Anyway, staying with the Middle East, I have been working with a local agency on another truly massive project — 20 square miles of developing area with an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 potential parking spaces, for both cars and trucks. The project is a concession to develop and operate all the parking in this area for the next 30 years.

A decade ago, I designed a 70,000-space parking operation for the city center, which was then state-of-the- art. In describing the new operation, it was interesting to realize just how much had changed.

There was a lot of debate, and a fair bit of shouting, over whether meters were any longer relevant. Some argued that meters were now old hat and that a modern system should not require any street furniture.

“Smart” systems rendered the meter obsolete. My problem was that although people had speculated and written about alternatives, they didn’t yet exist as proven workable technology. A few tentative trials and presentations at conferences do not translate to a working reliable system.

So, meters it is, although very smart new meters that can be used for other things as well. With enforcement, we were on firmer ground. Advances in LPR technology and the ability to create a central record of payments and license plates means that enforcement can be highly automated, and we estimated that we could reduce enforcement costs by about 80% to 90%, compared with the traditional manual patrol process.

So much so, in fact, that it would be cost-effective to replace all the existing meters in the city with newer devices and automate the checking process.

The bids are in, and not surprisingly, they are all grouped around a common value +/- about 10%. All bar one, that is. One company has, in crude terms, offered twice what anyone else has. Interesting, since the people concerned have never operated a single parking meter.

What did surprise me was the total lack of international interest. These are big, long-term multimillion-dollar projects, and yet no one from outside the immediate geographical area even looked at the business.

It is pretty certain that over the next few years, parking is going to be a growth area and I really do not understand why the big players are not building relationships with local partners to exploit these opportunities.