Meter meditations made material.

Loath as I am to feature a blog article without a single photo, work and travel obligations are preventing me right now from getting my “real” articles written at the pace that I’d like. And this topic makes for good filler, because it’s a follow-up on a previous small article that generated a fair amount of good discussion here.

Back in November, I wrote about on-street parking restrictions that don’t use a meter. Instead the streetscape relies on honesty—on people parking at a space for less than the time dictated by a sign (usually two hours), and then leaving the space when the allotted time has run out. Through this method, locals who live nearby still have a reasonable chance to snag the space, since they very well might depend upon it, particularly in a dense urban environment, which is where one typically sees regulated on-street parking.

While honesty may be the best policy in a perfect world, all of us suffer moral lapses and will cheat from time to time. In the example above (from a random place somewhere in America), a person could both avoid payment by parking on streets near his or her destination that lack parking meters and could easily outstay the time prescribed on the sign. This dual method of cheating without ever breaking an enforceable law puts a whole new spin on the economic “free rider” principle. As long as a person is willing to walk a bit further to his/her destination in a commercialized downtown (where all the spaces have meters), he or she can park all day for free, and if someone flags him or her for a violation, it will merely be the two parties’ words against one another. It’s a stalemate of enforceability.

A recent blog article from Pennsylvania’s third largest metro reveals that I’m not the only one contemplating the predicament of where both parking meters and residential permits still fail to manage on-street parking demand. And while I figured this to be the case, the Allentown Parking Authority is reacting to growing demand for on-street spaces in the increasingly vibrant downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. Tamara Dolan, Executive Director of the Parking Authority, looks at the three primary categories of parking needs: employees (during the day), clients (quick coming and going) and residents (evenings and overnight). At this point, it appears that the most likely modifications will be expanded hours of meter enforcement and increased hourly rates, but the article also references a reassessment of the location of meters where they are no longer necessary, as well as a comprehensive evaluation of the residential permit neighborhoods. These last two considerations could—and probably should—result in relocating some of the meters in the locations where violators of the honesty policy are robbing residents of the evening parking spaces they deserve.

The authorities in any municipality with a high demand for on-street parking must continually scrutinize the placement of meters, residential permits, and the level of enforcement of these two regulatory measures, with the goal of balancing the demands of the three aforementioned users…within reason. Those last two words serve as a critical final caveat, because off-street parking will always remain an option, however costly it may be in larger or most vibrant cities, where such spaces are in short supply. The other entity that can help mitigate excessive demand—and which the typical Parking Authority does not control—is mass transit. Unfortunately, in smaller cities, transit often plays a negligible role in the discussion.

So, until we find that panacea, clients or patrons of urban businesses will continue to milk the system as much as possible, finding that sweet parking spot that combines locational convenience with a reasonable price. And parking enforcement will resort to chalk marks on car tires to track violators of the maximum time limits on spaces that lack meters. And residents will seethe at how many times the violators get away with taking the spaces in front of their homes. And the most ardent cheaters will challenge the parking violations, claiming, quite rightly, that the parking authority “can’t prove” they outstayed the permissible time frame, since there wasn’t a meter there to count the minutes. As those downtown commercial districts become more popular and vibrant, the impasse only escalates.

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