Measuring demand in meters.

As work commitments prevent me from getting to the sort of articles I want to write, I have to settle for much shorter filler material for the time being.  But, unlike most of my blog posts, the photo below is not reflective of any particular location.  It could be just about anywhere in the country.


The sign features an alternative to meters as a method of regulating on-street parking.  These sort of restrictions are common in older, higher-density urban environments, where the residents in the neighborhood must contend with relative scarcity in parking, but the area is not quite commercialized enough to justifying monetizing the available spaces (typically achieved through parking meters).  Thus, we witness a situation that essentially amounts to free on-street parking, but people who live in the area are eligible for permits that give them slightly greater privileges.  And what might that privilege be?  Permit-owners aren’t subject to the two-hour parking rule from 8am to midnight, except Sunday and holidays.  No fear of a parking violation for them.

It seems like a good compromise, but how well does it work?  In the case from the above photo, the free but permit-restricted spaces are two blocks away from a major commercial street and one block from an area where all the on-street spaces have meters.  Thus, if people are feeling stingy, they can avoid the meters altogether, as long as they are willing to walk a block further.  And who wouldn’t be?

In this situation, the only ones who emerge as winners are the visiting shoppers; both the City Parking Authority (or whoever controls the spaces) and the residents of the neighborhood get a bum deal.  Obviously the City loses out on any regular revenue that it might otherwise get through parking meters.  But the residents in the area—many of whom depend upon this on-street parking because the older, pre-automobile neighborhood lacks many garages or driveways—do not benefit from a clear-cut enforcement system over visitors taking their spaces.  The sign dictates “2 hour parking” during most of the week, except for people with permits.  But who is there to enforce this rule?  Clearly, parking enforcement officers can monitor and issue citations to people who outstay the parking on their meters; they benefit from an unambiguous indicator of violations.  But areas managed by the sign above obviously lack this impartial machine keeping time and flashing “expired” in red letters, so nothing exists to resolve disputes between motorists who defend their parking time against accusations that they have exceeded the two-hour limit.

It’s the word of one party against another.  The residents in the adjacent housing—the same neighborhood members who need these parking permits to ensure themselves of space—could very well spend two hours looking out the window of their homes, but all their have is their own argument—which they could just as easily apply unfairly if they have a vendetta, by spitefully targeting a car that has been parked for just 25 minutes, calling an enforcement officer to issue a violation.  Citations may take place from time to time, but only at a fraction of the proportion of actual violations—certainly not with the success rate of those who exceed their time on parking meters.

In other words, for the most part, these signs don’t work.  They can’t work.  When it comes to the semantics of their prohibitions elevated to law, they fail.  The prohibition nullifies itself, and it basically functions as free parking under the veneer of some restriction that essentially no one can unambiguously enforce.  That veneer may be enough to keep most motorists from violating the two-hour limit—after all, some will receive citations and won’t question them.  But what’s the likelihood of someone stopping them if they stay for two and half hours, or three, or six?  The only likely method of proving a violation would be to plant a video camera on the car over the course of a time duration, which could be entered into evidence if the dispute were to elevate to a courtroom.  Maybe some people in the neighborhood would do that if they witnessed recurring instances of egregious parking violations, and the availability of spaces for people living in the neighborhood became unacceptably scarce.  But otherwise, it’s highly unlikely.

As a result, signs like this are a largely ineffectual middle ground when demand and supply aren’t sufficiently out-of-sync to reach a tipping point.  If things get too bad on a block like this, it would be in the best interest of the city’s parking authority to install meters.  Clearly it would be a good revenue opportunity.  But it isn’t a fundamentally retail-oriented block.  And the placement of meters on a residential street where neighborhood permit-holders are exempt will simply result in metered spaces getting used by non-payers, generating a huge sort of deadweight loss.  Most likely, if demand for these spaces ramps up among neighborhood residents, they’ll have to petition for a sign that limits parking to permit holders exclusively–first excluding visitors at night (when the locals need the spaces the most), and, eventually, if things get busy enough, they will exclude visitors at all times.  It’s a common situation in the most high-density of urban settings, and the most likely byproduct of our need to reconcile the pre-automobile built environment with the post-automobile one.

8 thoughts on “Measuring demand in meters.

  1. Brian M

    Many cities do enforce this where this is an issue. A simple drive by a scooter with an officer using a piece of chalk does the trick. Is it worth the cost? Perhaps perhaps not.

  2. Shayne M.

    We have this type of parking in a small area where I work. Sometimes it’s enforced, but most of the time not. Very costly if it’s a day they decide to enforce it though. Krissa and I know from experience

  3. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks for the observation, Brian. Good point. The “chalk” trick is sometimes used even on metered spaces when a person is restricted to a maximum use of time (say, one hour), but enforcers are looking for those who stay at the space for five hours, simply coming back every 55 minutes or so to feed the meter. It can work, but it still isn’t foolproof, and there’s no integrity to the process on the enforcer’s end. After all, anyone can flag a tire with a piece of chalk.

    Most parking violations aren’t expensive enough that people will go to the effort to contest it, yet they do cost enough that people will do what they can to avoid it. That broadly accepted mentality is probably guarding better than anything else against “violations” in situations like the one in the photo. Beyond that, there’s not much else to prevent people from cheating in situations like these, robbing both the City of a good revenue opportunity in parking enforcement, and robbing the neighborhood of consistently available on-street parking.

  4. V

    Instead of installing a meter at each individual space wouldn’t it be possible to install an electronic meter that oversaw the entire block with numbers painted on individual spaces? I think that would provide a solution without the same infrastructure costs. I’m sure it would still have its challenges in implementing of course but this seems like a more affordable solution.

  5. AmericanDirt Post author

    Thanks for the comment, V. As you’ve no doubt noticed, that is becoming fairly common in a number of cities. Or–perhaps I should correct myself–it HAD BECOME common, back about a decade ago or more. Cities that adapted to electronic metering at an early point in the technological advancement are the ones most likely to depend on intermittent, centralized meter boxes. Philadelphia and New Orleans, for example, usually require a person to park, walk half a block to a meter box, pay, receive a receipt which serves as the proof of payment from the meter box, then return to the car, open the door, and place that receipt in the dashboard as proof of payment. Other cities (typically those that adapted to electronic metering a bit later) still depend on the centralized boxes, but each on-street space has its own code number, and the meter boxes allow a user to enter the code number, pay for that numbered space, and no additional paper receipt is necessary. This second option seems much more amenable to remote paying through internet methods or through apps on smart phones.

    Still other cities depend heavily on individualized electronic metering, much like it was before but now each meter is digitized and people can pay with credit/debit. I agree with you that the investment for this option is probably the steepest, but it may be that a Parking Authority recoups the cost in administration fairly quickly, since it allows a very efficient method of issuing citations for violations…everything is digitized and indicated by the discrete parking space. I’m not sure how any of these methods, though, would guard against the option of unmetered-but-regulated on-street spaces like the one indicated by the sign in this blog post. Perhaps you have a solution?

  6. Alex Pline

    This is a tough problem and I wish we knew how to deal with it. Balancing the interests of residents and businesses in these kind of old/historic urban neighborhoods is tricky. Seems to me the option indicated here is the best compromise, but enforcement is always the issue. What we see happening in layer upon layer of additional regulations on a block by block basis due to lobbying by interest groups, ending up with a byzantine parking code. I wish I knew what the right answer was…

  7. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the comment, Alex. I agree–there’s simply no good solution when we try to reconcile settlement patterns created before the automobile with a world where we practically cannot live without them. I don’t see how a cure-all answer will ever exist. But that’s usually the case.


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