Monday, May 10, 2010

Automating to solve the wrong problem

Newton's going to go high-tech to catch people who feed the meter beyond the posted time limit. The Globe had a story today. The TAB covered it in March. License plate reading cameras and zippy software identify cars that have been parked too long, allowing traffic enforcement agents to troll the streets for scofflaws quickly and efficiently.

But, it's a modern solution to enforcing outmoded parking policies.

Time limits are a crude tool to enforce turnover. Too low meter rates make it attractive for too many people to park on the street, so you need time limits to get people moving in and out of spaces. But, uniform limits and rates across most of a village centre make it attractive to feed the meter, especially when there is no alternative.
Variable meter rates are a better solution. Variable according to time of day and variable according to proximity. It takes some trial and error to find it, but there is a rate for every stretch of on-street parking that will yield 85% occupancy in a particular period. Eight-five percent occupancy is the level at which there is (nearly) always a space available for the next person who needs one, satisfying the turnover requirement. No need to impose a time limit on the person willing to pay for several hours of such parking privilege. Among other things, a time limit doesn't differentiate between someone having a long lunch and browsing in stores and an employee taking advantage of cheap rates to park close to the front door.

High rates on prime spots and lower rates on less desirable spots moves the less desirable parker out of the prime spots. If we have sufficient parking in our village centers to accommodate long-term parkers -- commuters and employees, principally -- let the market decide where they should park and how many spaces they should take. Price the second tier spaces to yield 85% occupancy. If need be, create a third or fourth tier. But, so long as there is turnover in every tier, who cares if some spaces are occupied by long-term parkers, so long as they are willing to pay the market rate.

Variable meters require some higher tech than the meters we've got. Too bad the city invested in high tech that enforces an outmoded model rather than high tech that would allow us to modernize our parking policies.

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