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Where Is an Hour Not an Hour?

In the new fairy-land of New York City parking, where drivers, who tend to act like children to begin with, will be treated thusly and indulgently, in an act of colossal political cowardice (the car is, if nothing else, the great vehicle for political pandering — remember the “gas tax” holiday?).

Why a five-minute “grace period”? Why not ten minutes? Why enforce any law at all? Perhaps we should start demanding grace periods elsewhere in life (Mr. Taxi Driver, can you please drive me a few more blocks for free?) This is a classic case of Thomas Schelling’s “micromotives and macrobehavior,” where the no big deal of every driver taking the extra five minutes adds up to a great chain of inconvenience for the larger collective. That little grace period just added more cars to your block, circling for that (already undercharged) spot as the driver and traffic agent mull over the metaphysics of time.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at 8:54 am and is filed under Parking. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Where Is an Hour Not an Hour?”

  1. sam Says:

    I can understand a 1 or 2 minute grace simply to account for the fact that not everyone’s watch is set perfectly, but a rational driver would solve that problem by either (a) setting his watch to the time on the muni-meter or (b) giving himself a 5-minute head start to return to the meter.

    Of course, I always keep my watch set five minutes fast so that I’m early to everything, but that may be my OCD talking.

  2. Brad Templeton Says:

    Tom, you’ve missed a hugely important difference on this. The grace period isn’t from the city, it’s from the parker. Or rather, the way parking meters work is you must estimate in advance more time than you will actually need, and put more money than you would actually fairly owe in the meter for the amount of time you are going to park. You must put in the worst case amount, possibly needed to re-feed if that’s allowed, but once again putting in more than you will actually need.

    Now with the old style meters, when people put in more money than they actually ended up using, the meter stayed valid, and other people could come in to the spot and use up the extra time, so the city got no extra money for it. Later, they had meters which detected the car leaving and reset. Now, the ticket based meters of course just keep for the city any extra money the parker paid.

    Viewed in this context a grace period (which accounts for the fact that few can be precise about their return time) seems a much fairer than free extra blocks in a taxi, which already precisely meters just what you use if you go more than the flag drop distance.

    Another alternative would be to allow people to feed their ticket back into the machine when they return, and get a refund for any unused parking they had prepaid for. This is the most fair, but it’s also more work and logistics, so the grace period seems an easier way to help the balance.

    Of course cities don’t want you parking long term. If they did, a refund system can actually increase revenue. In such a system you let the person put in lots of money and come back for credit. This encourages them to put in more and often use more, compared to the system where you have to return to feed the meter and may decide it’s time to go, now that you are at your car.

    Now I understand the issues around whether cities should subsidize parking, and they are valid, but on this grace period, it seems entirely fair — in fact still biased quite strongly towards the city collecting more money than parking is provided. In busy streets, collecting more money than there actually is parking available due to overages all going to the city.

  3. Tom Vanderbilt Says:

    Brad, you raise a good point, though I always look at it as a bit municipal karma — sometimes I waste money, sometimes I gain a surplus from someone else. It all seems to work out. In any case, the best and most rational system would be an EZ-Pass style transponder, “paying as you go,” with prices adjusted upwards or downwards for occupancy (airline style). There would be no parking tickets. There could be an incremental feature built in — rates getting higher and higher — to discourage long-term parking (for as John Van Horn is always point out over at Parking Today, a lot of the best parking in areas with shops is taking up by the merchants themselves, hence their complaints against city parking policies are a bit misapplied).

    As for the time point, there’s a nice iPhone app with a built in timer that alerts you to your meter expiration. I look at keeping proper time as a routine bit of adult life, similar to not taking out one’s anger on the traffic agent because you simply couldn’t make it back to the meter on time. What’s city life, anyway, without a few parking tickets every year? I rack up at least half a dozen. It’s economic pain, sure, but so is the cost of fuel etc. driving to all those ‘free’ parking places in the suburbs.

  4. MikeOnBike Says:

    This seems to be the reasoning:

    “Not everybody’s watch in the city of New York is set at the same time,” meaning that “11 a.m. on somebody’s watch could be 11:02 a.m. at a traffic agent or police officer’s watch.”

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