The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Let's get rid of parking tickets

In his Washington Post Metro column yesterday, John Kelly talked about parking tickets, and particularly the rush that comes from avoiding one.

Arlington's iPark.

The column begins, "There are few pleasures greater than coming back to your car after you know your meter has expired and finding that you don't have a parking ticket. It's like getting away with murder." Kelly then spends the next 90% of the column explaining how he doesn't actually condone murder, torture or embezzlement, then defending himself against people who don't like his jokes or his picture. Once he eventually gets back around to actually talking about something, he writes:

But getting back to where I started this column: There are few pleasures greater than coming back to your car after you know your meter has expired and finding that you don't have a parking ticket. This got me thinking that cities should experiment with "progressive" parking tickets. The longer your car sits at an expired meter, the more the ticket would be for. A minute late, and your fine is only $5. Half an hour late, and it's $20. Three hours late, and you're looking at 60 bucks.

It would make parking a bit like gambling: Do you hurry to your vehicle, or do you let it ride?

Things would be similar from the other end: Local jurisdictions would have to decide between a sure thing and a long shot. Do you ticket a car as soon as the meter expires, or do you continue on your rounds in the hopes that when you swing back around the car will still be there and you can land a bigger payday?

Despite some flaws, this isn't such a bad idea on its face. But it actually is nibbling at the edges of a much more important idea: there should not be parking tickets at all.

Am I saying we should stop enforcing parking laws and let people violate the law with impunity? Of course not. But parking tickets are a very imperfect, and unpleasant, way to ensure people pay for the parking they use. In the ideal world, they would not exist.

We don't think about rent the same way, for example. Nobody writes, "there are few pleasures greater than coming to your apartment after you know you haven't paid the rent and finding that you weren't evicted. It's like getting away with murder." Why don't we say this? Because there's no gambling involved in not paying your rent. Your landlord certainly knows. We don't think about trying to get away with not paying because it's 100% enforcable.

Likewise, when a driver parks in a pay garage, there's similarly no gamble. When they exit, they pay for exactly the number of hours they used, at whatever posted rate the garage uses.

The problem with parking meters as they work today is that we don't just pay for what we use. Instead, we have to either put in too many quarters, and then feel annoyed about leaving time on the meter, or risk putting in too few, and getting a ticket. This isn't a desirable state of affairs, but simply one necessitated by parking meter technology.

That's no longer necessary. Many cities are starting to deploy technology that lets a driver pay for exactly the amount of parking they use. Sometimes there is a little transponder in the car that they turn on and off, or they call a number on their cell phone. If our streets knew when people were parking there, we wouldn't need tickets.

Instead of Kelly's suggestion of $5 for a minute late, $20 for a half hour, $60 for three hours, how about this: if the rate is, say, $3 an hour, then the charge is 5¢ for being a minute late, $1.50 for a half hour, or $9 for three hours. In other words, you just pay the parking rate. But instead of it being a gamble, and parking enforcers having to decide how long to let the car go before writing the ticket, there's a 100% chance of paying. It's just like rent: you use it, you pay. And for those who do park without the transponders or without using the cell phone system or whatever, then we'd have penalties, just like we do if you smash through the exit gate at a garage instead of paying.

Mark Kleiman, who writes about crime policy, has noted that the "rational actor" economic theory doesn't work well for most crime. Say that breaking into houses netted an average of $2,000 in loot, and a robber got caught 10% of the time. Then, the as long as the punishment were great enough as to be worth more than $20,000 or so, people wouldn't break into houses. However, this doesn't work; we've raising the punishment for many crimes but not stopped their commission. Kleiman argues that this works better when the likelihood of being caught is higher, such as a fine and jail worth about $5,000 for being caught 50% of the time. People more tightly associate the penalty and a crime if the two come together more often.

The same applies for parking. We should strive to catch parking scofflaws more often, but penalize them less. Ideally, as with rent, we would identify 100% of parking scofflaws, thus making true parking fraud a serious crime but simply overstaying one's meter not a crime at all.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


Add a comment »

I like your idea as long as it factors time limits on spaces. 2 hours limits are intended to turn over spots, which is there is a limit on how much fixed time may be purchased. It should be legal to feed a meter automatically within the posted time limit for a space.

I'd really prefer meters/kiosks that consistently worked. Half the time when I park the meter doesn't register the money entered. The parking enforcement people ignore notes or manually reset meters and ticket you on the spot. I've always beaten these on appeal, but they're always irritating. Nothing like following the law and still being punished for a violation.

by B on Nov 13, 2009 1:25 pm • linkreport

I wonder if this is something that could be implemented in the city without being implemented all along the eastern seaboard. Maybe if it was a call in system but not if cars had to get sensors. I wonder if an automatic license plate billing system could work.

by Cameron on Nov 13, 2009 1:32 pm • linkreport

"Nobody writes, "there are few pleasures greater than coming to your apartment after you know you haven't paid the rent and finding that you weren't evicted. It's like getting away with murder.""

Actually, you'd be shocked at how many tenants in DC refuse to pay rent to their landlord for either real or imaginary housing code violations. And they know with DC's super tenant-friendly laws, it will take months for the landlord to be able to get an eviction notice and physically remove the tenants from the property.

And yes, it is like getting away with murder because in those cases where the tenants' allegations are bunk, they're living rent-free while the costs of providing and maintaining their residence is totally someone else's responsibility.

by Fritz on Nov 13, 2009 1:33 pm • linkreport

The technology exists. All over Europe you can (/have to) pay for parking using text messaging. When you park, you text your car tag to some number. When you return, you text again, and you pay by the minute.

Parking cops ride around Google-Street-type cars that read the tags of parked cars, and check that against a database. If the tag missing, then a massive tickets is written.

Is that Big Brother taking over? Not as long as the tags are deleted once they leave, and access to the database of parked tags is very limited, in the sense that only limited folks can access it at all, and those people can only check whether a tag is in or out, not where its parked.

Or, just take away all parking meters, and see how long it takes before people are begging for them again.

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

I agree with B. This whole posting missed the mark. Street parking is timed so that customer turnover can occur on a regular basis. It is supposed to gently nudge people to move their cars so that others can patronize the local businesses.

by E on Nov 13, 2009 1:57 pm • linkreport

Arlington's iPark is pricey, but it essentially pays for itself if it saves you from one ticket.

by James M on Nov 13, 2009 2:02 pm • linkreport

Great idea. The "2 hour limit" is a non issue, really, that can all be factored in to the pricing structure. $2 per hour for the first 2 hours, $5 per hour for the next 2, $20 per hour after that, for example.

by Jamie on Nov 13, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

I don't think David meant to imply that you could exceed maximum parking limits.

I heard Gabe Klein really wants to do this. He doesn't want to install any more of the multispace meters. The text message system is one he is considering, and iPark too. But the problem is what to do with those who might not have cell phones on them. That isn't an impossible challenge, but it will need to be dealt with. I think the parking meter is going the way of the phone booth and call box.

by David C on Nov 13, 2009 2:59 pm • linkreport

What this is is the next step in managing our resources. Rather than imposing arbitrary and burdensome rules, you base it on flexible low-level rules that scale up effectively. It's applying market structures in an appropriate way.

Let's get TXT to park.

by Neil Flanagan on Nov 13, 2009 3:05 pm • linkreport

@ David C: In Europe, they have very little sympathy for people that can not text. That's because the main reason they went to those "moneyless" systems is the ongoing theft of parking meter money.

However, here in the civilized US, they could just install one good old meter per intersection, where you can pay with old skool coins at twice or three times the rate.

[And yes, I realize that would put a premium on paying with cash, something I personally hate]

by Jasper on Nov 13, 2009 3:08 pm • linkreport

I do think we should get rid of maximum time limits. But we can certainly charge more for higher numbers of hours if there's a public policy goal of pushing turnover.

In many residential areas right now, there are maximum time limits for nonresidents with NO way to park for longer, even if you want to pay and/or there is plenty of space. That's why so many neighborhoods are clamoring for guest passes. If only we let people like contractors park for longer but at whatever cost is appropriate to maintain some availability, then we wouldn't have all these people needing narrow exceptions.

by David Alpert on Nov 13, 2009 3:23 pm • linkreport

I stand corrected...

by David C on Nov 13, 2009 3:27 pm • linkreport

@David C writes:

"I don't think David meant to imply that you could exceed maximum parking limits."

However, David A did say:

"Instead of Kelly's suggestion of $5 for a minute late, $20 for a half hour, $60 for three hours, how about this: if the rate is, say, $3 an hour, then the charge is 5¢ for being a minute late, $1.50 for a half hour, or $9 for three hours. In other words, you just pay the parking rate."

From my read, that looks like he's just turning into a pay-by-the hour parking space. He did say "parking rate"--which makes it look like a streetside rental space. This would not inspire people to leave the space and turn it over.

by Graypilgrim on Nov 13, 2009 4:31 pm • linkreport

@Graypilgrim, Yep, David pointed out my error already.

by David C on Nov 13, 2009 5:00 pm • linkreport

@David: oops. I'm slow today :)

by Graypilgrim on Nov 13, 2009 5:30 pm • linkreport

Some people just want to kick you when you're down. ;)

by David C on Nov 13, 2009 6:19 pm • linkreport

I disagree with the entire concept of either eliminating the time limits or creating a new fee structure for tickets.

Time limits:

The problem with eliminating time limits in neighborhoods is that to encourage turnover the only option the city would have would be to make people pay for parking, which would mean meters or some variation thereof. Yeah, right. The city can't even pay for and maintain the meters we already have.

Further, eliminating time limits in commercial areas and allowing people to pay more to park more would inevitably lead to people parking more without regard to turnover. The costs for parking would have to be so high to be the equivalent of garage rates (thereby killing short-term on street parking) or work on a complicated scaling fee. That is a disaster in the making. We should be trying to streamline our parking regime so that it's simple, fair, and achieves a policy goal of ensuring more parking spaces are available for everybody.

A better solution to the time limit dilemma is to allow contractors to apply for an daytime residential parking permit. Contractors, electricians, plumbers, etc. already need a DC trade license to work in the city, why not just hand them a parking permit for their vehicle(s) at the same time? Anybody else can get the standard week-long guest permits to put in their windshield.


The point of a ticket is to punish an offender. By moving to a sliding scale whereby the ticket is calculated by the amount of time you're "over" then you're taking the enforcement teeth out of it. The only way to overcome this problem and to ensure turnover would be to implement a ridiculously complicated sliding scale system. Additionally, such small amount tickets ($3 an hour??) are not going to cover the cost of enforcement.

by Adam L on Nov 13, 2009 6:53 pm • linkreport

@Adam L I think you are missing the point of this method of enforcement.

Creating a pricing structure that charges on a sliding scale does not "eliminate the teeth" or eliminate time limits, any more than regular tickets do. Once you get a ticket at a regular meter, you can pretty much stay there all day. I myself played this game on a regular basis when I worked as a contractor near Judiciary Square a number of years ago. A meter ticket was $25 at the time, and parking in a garage was $15. So I just paid for two hours and gambled, I usually only got one ticket a week which worked out much better than paying for a garage every day. The sliding scale would have made that a non-starter.

If you charge a rate that increases steeply after the limit, it's no different than issuing a parking ticket, except that enforcement is automatic and any incentive to just accept a ticket as the cost of parking is gone since it will quickly become much more expensive than a single ticket if you just left your car.

As far as the cost of enforcement, who cares how ridiculously complicated it is? It's automatic, no person has to figure it out. Computers are amazing machines.

The goal is to strike a balance between fairness and convenience for people who are abiding with the law, and deterring those who do not. The current system punishes everyone equally whether you just forgot to put enough time in the meter, or you dumped your car there all day. This system would achieve the same goals of encouraging parking turnover, and severely punishing the worst offenders, while making it much easier for legitimate parking users to avoid expensive mistakes.

by Jamie on Nov 16, 2009 7:49 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us