Sunday, May 1, 2016

Parking politics in Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta has an absurd amount of parking Source: ATLUrbanist
It appears that PARKAtlanta, the city's controversial private parking enforcer, is up for contract renewal. As Creative Loafing describes, this is a great opportunity for the city to reform its parking policies by raising the all-in price of parking to a more socially-optimal level, and adopting sensor technology to allow for dynamic demand management. Atlanta is seeing solid improvements in walkability and density (although it remains largely car-centric), and using parking to further these positive trends would be advisable.

The public outrage against PARKAtlanta is an interesting case study showing just how politically difficult good parking policy is. To be sure, if PARKAtlanta actually does have a systemic problem of issuing incorrect citations, that's a problem. And if it has bad customer service, that's a problem too, and the city should drop its contract in favor of better alternatives. But much of the anger directed towards the company concerns 'aggressive enforcement'. Huh?

PARKAtlanta appears to have done an excellent job at increasing the citation rate for parking violations, challenging motorists' expectations about the payoff of routinely flouting parking rules. Where I see effective 'swift-and-certain' enforcement (which raises the implicit price of parking), some see injustice:
"I think you have an unholy alliance here," [critic Mike Boyle] says. "You have policing for profit. There's an inherent conflict of interest. Either you're trying to maximize revenue or enforce the law. It's difficult to do both."
Implicit in this critique, I think, is the notion that if city employees were back in charge they wouldn't enforce meters as effectively, reducing the rate of false citations.

In Boyle's view, we must accept a high rate of meter flouting (for example) in order to ensure there's absolutely no chance of a false citation. He sees the opposite approach--accepting some false citations to ensure much less meter flouting--as unacceptable. There's a tight, linear, negative correlation between these two types of error (speculative, in my view).

As a general rule, enforcement error asymmetry should indeed favor people over governments (on this we probably agree). But enforcement error happens no matter what, so being clear-eyed and non-dogmatic about factoring it into discussions of policy implementation is important.

In this specific case, I'm simply unconvinced that the benefits of an extreme precautionary approach to false parking citations outweigh the costs of more violations. Reducing the privileged place that automobiles have in Atlanta is really important, and incentivising overly-cautious and overly-respectful motorist behavior via enforcement is smart policy. It's also quite difficult to differentiate between actual false citations and merely disgruntled motorists, but that's another story...

On a deeper level, many discussions about urban policy are too philosophical and legalistic. I would like to see more boring, mundane talk about costs, benefits, and group winners and losers, Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns says it best:
"[W]e are treating traffic regulations like they were given to Moses on Mount Sinai. If people actually understood the haphazard way traffic control devices were developed and the random way in which they are applied, they would not hold them in such majesty." 

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