Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Free parking

Parts of downtown Boston have switched over to a new on-street parking system where you pay at a central box for a slip that you leave on your dashboard. (It’s not clear to me how motorcycles or convertibles are supposed to comply.) Paying for parking is a current issue in my town as well, where parking has been free. There’s a time limit (in some areas), but no enforcement of the time limit. And the only solution that most people can imagine is adding traditional parking meters and enforcement.

So I’ve been wondering about how people think about paying for on-street parking. The current popular system in downtown areas is parking meters and enforcement, where the parking meter rate is significantly cheaper than off-street parking and parking tickets cost more than off-street parking. The revenue from parking meter payments covers the cost of the meters, but parking tickets represent significant revenue. The city wants revenue from parking tickets, turnover at parking spots, and less traffic. The businesses and restaurants want parking to not feel burdensome to their customers in terms of availability, cost, and risk of tickets. And drivers, when we’re discussing the situation away from our cars, generally accept the risk of getting tickets ourselves in exchange for the benefits of ticketing others (higher turnover, higher city revenue, and schadenfreude).

Personally, I hate getting parking tickets. And I think a lot of other people do, too. It’s not so much the expense of the ticket as the random enforcement, the ticketing mistakes, and the sense that the city government claims an inverse correlation between general moral uprightness and parking tickets. If we’re going to change the parking system in Boston or in my city, I’d like to see it changed in a way that reduces ticketing.

In a city like mine, the only real concern for on-street parking is making sure that cars don’t occupy spaces in the business district all day. We don’t need meters; we only need a bit of enforcement of the existing time limits. But parking in a downtown like Boston could use some imagination.

Right now, we have to guess ahead of time how long we’re going to want to be in the parking space and round up. I was happier guessing on the high end when I knew the next car would benefit from my overestimate, but the parking slips remove that consolation. A parking ticket makes parking much more expensive if we forget to pay the meter, if we overstay our up-front payment, or if we overstay the upper time limit. On the other hand, once we get a ticket, there’s no further payment required for staying in the parking space for many hours beyond the upper time limit.

Switching to smart meters or smart parking slip boxes means we could make on-street parking work much more like a parking garage. We could remove the up-front guesswork, pay for the time we actually use, and scale the payments for overstays to fit the length of the overstay. Right now we pay 25 cents per 15 minutes with an up-front guess on how much time we’ll be, with a 2-hour upper limit and a single $25 ticket for an overstay. We could leave a pay up-front option in place, but add an option of swiping a credit card on arrival and returning your parking slip on departure, where you’d pay the regular rate per 15 minutes up to 2 hours and $2.50 per 15 minutes after that. No more having to guess ahead of time, no more paying for time you don’t use, no more free parking once you’ve been ticketed, and a payment for staying beyond the limit that is scaled to the amount of time you’ve overstayed.

And once we’re looking at a system like that, we can adapt the parking rate to the projected or even actual demand for space at different times of day. We can set a higher upper time limit for evenings in restaurant and theater districts. We can set a higher rate during peak demand. We can lower the rate in shopping districts during times when we want to increase shopping. And smart meters can be integrated into live parking availability maps that resemble live traffic maps, reducing traffic and frustration.

Or we could just keep chasing parking ticket revenue, increasing the stress, misery, and unfairness involved in parking downtown. Punishing others is so satisfying.