Arlington’s iPark.

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

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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.