Cars, for better or worse, are a significant part of life in a large part of the world — including the part that I happen to live in. One thing they’ve done is make it possible for cities to be as large as they are. Of course, a side effect of this is that they choke them with congestion and poison them with, well, poison. With a garnish of asphalt and noise. And ever since their introduction, people have looked at them and thought “How can I make money from that?”
I’m being more than a little unfair, of course. Cars cost a tremendous amount to support, in social costs as well as plain old money. Given this, it’s totally reasonable that some amount of the costs be recovered. Governments, for example, tax their purchase, tax their fuel, require that vehicles and drivers be licensed, and so on. Is this ‘too much?’ Probably in some places it is, but I wasn’t going to talk about that. I was going to talk about parking.
I mentioned governments. Where I live, the various taxes and fees I described are typically levied by national and regional governments (for some definition of ‘regional’). Local (ie. city) governments typically don’t have a whole lot of options for fees or taxes or whatever that affect cars — they’re mostly limited to two ways to make money: road tolls (and most places politicians are deathly afraid of even talking about those)
The issue of parking makes a lot of apparently reasonable, normal people do a lot of bizarre things. And as you may have guessed, I have a couple of anecdotes.
In the city where I live, the city runs various parking, um, ‘venues.’ On-street. Lots. ‘Structures.’ And so on. Until fairly recently, most on-street and some lots were ‘serviced’ by parking meters. (That link is more or less picked at random from the 11 million hits suggested if you type “parking meter history” into google.) with some lots and structures handled by ‘attendants’ — folks in booths.
Parking administrators loved meters but things weren’t… perfect. Why not? Well, it costs money to collect the money plus they’re driven mad by the thought that someone, somewhere, is parking for free. And meters sometimes let folks park for free — if someone arrives at a meter that has time remaining, then, well, they park for free. Starting a few years ago, though, things changed with the arrival of, for lack of a better word, multispace meters.
The parking folks were happier because these machines let them sell the same space multiple times. But there were still those lots with the attendants. Historically, those lots and structures were in parts of town that the city wanted to promote as destinations. And as part of that promotion, the attended lots had a program where the first hour of parking was free. Not that they care what I think, but this was a policy I liked. I used it. Fairly frequently. (Plus I liked the attendants — they were generally efficient, pleasant and friendly.)
The first crack in all of this was the elimination of the attendants and their replacement by machines. Why? The stated reasons were ‘efficiency’ and ‘convenience’ but the longest line-ups ever happened after the machines. No, I think it was about money and one obvious target was the ‘first hour free’ policy. There were loud proclamations that it was safe, but the writing was on the wall.
Metaphorically, anyway. Not literally. Unfortunately. Because one Saturday, after breakfast at the Insomniac Capriform Cafe and shopping for essentials (essentials like squashed fruit, rocks named after a stripper and giant bugs) we returned to the car parking thingy and were presented with a bill that was a little too high. But you can’t complain to a machine so rather than standing there and screaming, we went home and did a little research.
Turns out the ‘first hour free’ policy was gone but it was hard to figure that out — its demise was… unannounced. No sign was ever posted in the parking thingy and the city website still had references to it — some (but not all) were removed and there was nothing anywhere that actually said it was gone. No animated graphics of Scrooge McDuck swimming in a bin of loonies, no giant red letters saying “your free ride is over you DEADBEATS. neener neener.”
And when I complained (about the lack of notification — the sums of money are trivial, after all) the only reaction seemed to be concern that they hadn’t eradicated all mention to it on the website — not that they hadn’t actually told anyone that there was going to be a change. Apparently the plan was to ramp up fees on a secret schedule and hope no one noticed.
I was (what’s a good word?) flabbergasted (may as well use that one — you don’t see it much these days) that this was considered appropriate behavior by a department full of public servants.
I didn’t think you could ‘top’ that one. I was wrong.
I’ve mentioned that parking folks are (apparently) obsessed with the thought that, somewhere, somehow, someone is parking for free. One — imperfect — ‘solution’ to this was, as mentioned, multispace meters — a ‘solution’ that reduces (but doesn’t eliminate) the ‘problem.’ Why? Because I can hand my slip of paper with remaining time to someone else. After all, the time is paid for and I’m not going to use it.
This doesn’t happen every time, of course. (Or even almost every time.) But it happens. And it means that someone is parking for free — even though the space has already been paid for. I can hear the distant cries of anguish every time I hand someone one of those slips of paper. But these folks are resourceful.
Recently we were on the west coast visiting friends that I’ve mentioned before (TV and LM). There, we were confronted with a machine that none of us had seen before: in order to purchase a ticket, one had to enter the license plate of the vehicle that would be using the space. This meant two things:
- the tickets were non-transferable: no more handing tickets to strangers.
- the machine was so so complicated that it was pushing the line marked ‘overwhelmingly complex.’ So complex that the parking authority has to spend money to put a uniformed attendant on-site to help people figure the machine out. (Between us we had six graduate degrees and a professional engineer and we needed his help.) And a machine this complicated has to be expensive to buy and keep in good repair.
This suggests to me that it’s not about the money — it’s about stamping out folks parking ‘for free.’
Clearly there’s a lot I don’t understand about public service.