Los Angeles Parking Meter Reform, Reasonable Edition

Parking reform is the talk of the town these days in Los Angeles. A new organization has formed to press for lower fines and a more sensible parking enforcement system, and with a name like the Los Angeles Parking Freedom Initiative, how can you go wrong? Don't you like freedom???

The centerpiece of the organization's reform package is to cap fines at $23, barely a third of the $63 currently charged for most infractions. But the problem with parking tickets probably isn't their price. If their price was actually unfair or out of scale as a penalty, no one would ever get a parking ticket because they'd never risk over-staying their meter. With 2.6 million tickets and $150 million in revenue last year, it's pretty clear that the fines aren't high enough to actually prevent people from breaking the curb-side rules.

But that's not to say that parking tickets aren't incredibly frustrating or that the system isn't in need of reform. Even as someone who hasn't owned a car in six years I've managed to get ticketed within the last few years, and it made me angry. Very angry. I felt like I'd made an honest mistake and a $60 ticket was a punishment that didn't fit the crime; I'm sure it's a feeling many have shared.

The LA Times Editorial Board published a post this morning imploring city officials to come up with a more just system, so I'm throwing out a few ideas. My motivation here is two-fold. First, to find a solution that maintains high enough fees to discourage scofflaws because parking turnover is important to both consumers and businesses -- $23 simply doesn't meet that requirement. Second, to minimize the frustration of excessive fines resulting from the rare, honest mistake, and to reduce the confusion that leads to those mistakes. If you get three parking tickets a month, it's you that needs to re-evaluate, not the city. Parking tickets have a place in a congested, highly urbanized city, but they must be perceived as fair if they're to survive. Here are my recommendations:

  • Give drivers some freebies. Once every six or twelve months, forgive a driver their sin. We all make mistakes, and if we only make them once a year or so that's not so bad. (This wouldn't apply to the more severe infractions like parking in front of fire hydrants or blocking driveways.) We're all human, and we all lose track of time, get held up in meetings, or mis-read a sign on occasion. Speaking of which...

  • Fix the damn parking signs. If signs are clearer, not only will fewer people mis-read them and park improperly, when they do they'll have less justification for disputing the fine. If a sign requires more than two separate sets of rules, just turn the spot into a parklet and put us out of our misery. And though this may actually be illegal... 

No. Inappropriate.

  • Limit drivers' ability to contest tickets under most circumstances. I don't know if this violates any standards of due process or anything, but I think the above two reforms should justify a more restricted ticket dispute process. If you're parked in a street-sweeping area during street-sweeping hours, I'm not sure what there is to dispute. This goes for many situations, and the enforcement agency sending you a picture of your car parked in the wrong place at the wrong time should be a sufficient response to challenges like that. Putting thousands of tickets through the adjudication process each year probably costs the city many millions of dollars, and residents lots of wasted time. And just to sweet the offer...

  • Give drivers a 5 minute buffer. This is really no different than holding them to the time they've actually paid for, since people will probably adjust to the extra five minutes, but I think the psychological impact could be significant. If you knew you had five minutes extra and you still missed the meter, complaints about how the meter maid was just waiting to stick it to you don't hold water quite as well.

  • Let residents and businesses sweep their own streets. If they want. This idea actually comes from the Parking Freedom Initiative (FREEDOM!!!), and I think it's a good one. It'd save the city money on sweeping, save residents money on parking tickets when they fail to move their cars on sweep days, and the city could pick up some extra revenue from those that don't keep their streets clean like they agreed to. I'm not sure how practical this really is (especially with enforcement), but I think it's worth looking into. And lastly, even though it doesn't have much to do with parking tickets... 

  • Eliminate disabled parking placards. These have a history of abuse in LA in particular, with a 2010 NBC report finding 80 percent of spaces in a 10-block radius downtown occupied by vehicles with disabled placards. Worse, these placards do nothing for the most disabled (who can't drive at all) or for low-income disabled persons who can't afford to own a car. Most of the remaining disabled people have no particular reason for getting free parking, and the cost to the city is enormous. On top of the general pointlessness of of the placards, the system is also rife with abuse. Get rid of disabled parking placards and you open a lot of metered parking spaces up to productive use, taking the pressure off of other drivers to park in questionable locations.

I have just a few responses to some of the more distasteful reforms proposed by the Parking Freedom Initiative. The worst is the idea that we should reinvest parking ticket revenue into additional parking. This idea is horrible, and the city shouldn't be responsible for subsidizing additional parking, especially since this would displace private investment in more productive land uses like commercial and residential development. In a city with a deepening affordability crisis, wasting more money and space on sub-market parking for the middle and upper classes should not be anywhere near a priority. If there's actually a need for additional parking it will be provided by the private market. If it's not being provided, it means drivers aren't actually willing to pay the market price of parking, in which case they have no one to blame for the shortage but themselves.

Another really bad idea is to create a TAP-like yearly parking pass (similar to those used on Metro), presumably to be used at metered spaces. I take it back, this idea is actually the worst, not the parking structure one. Unless this costs on the order of $10,000 a year, the potential for abuse of this card is incredible. How much would you pay for unlimited access to the $4 an hour space, 12 hours a day, 250 days a year, at the courthouse downtown? Every public, metered space in every employment center in the city would be occupied from 6am to 8pm with nearly zero turnover all day long, and every business that relied on a steady stream of customers would go under almost immediately. (On the bright side, walkable neighborhoods would be fine.)

To those less inclined to stick up for drivers and parking rule violators, I sympathize with you, but the system really does need fixing. It's up to the more level-headed among us to enact reasonable reforms while retaining the virtues of a system that encourages putting a price on the private use of public space. If we don't, we end up with the same kind of hare-brained initiatives that led to a completely broken property tax system (Prop 13) and a 2/3 vote requirement for all special taxes, no matter their value (also Prop 13). Reactive governance hasn't served us very well in the past, so let's be proactive while we still can.