Today was Bunker Hill Day, and therefore Boston parking meters were “off,” meaning not that you could park all day for nothing, but rather that you could park for two hours at a time for nothing.  Parking was free but still time-limited.  I’m betting most motorists would have preferred to pay the going rate and get a holiday from the time limit.

That little nugget reminds me of one of my favorite transit policy rants: parking meters are too damn cheap.  (Apologies to Matt Yglesias and/or Jimmy McMillan)  This is not exactly new thinking – I saw it in the Boston Globe in 2007, The New York times in 2010, and on the excellent Marginal Revolution blog last year.

We all know parking meters are a lot cheaper than paid parking lots, but you don’t get a lot more value for your parking lot dollar, except perhaps in crummy weather. This is reflected in the well-known fact that an open metered parking space is rare in a desirable area, the easy to observe behavior of people driving around circling looking for parking, and in the not-uncommon practice of feeding a meter all day (in violation of the time limit) on the logic that the occasional ticket still works out cheaper than paying retail for parking. (The last suggests that parking tickets are too cheap or too sporadically enforced, or maybe both, but we’ll get back to that in a bit)

So what’s the harm?  The city is giving up revenue it might get by bringing parking meter prices up to market rates, but it’s providing a service to drivers and the businesses that depend on drivers for customers.  Maybe so, but all this circling around looking for a meter wastes time and fuel, adds to pollution, and increases congestion for all forms of traffic trying to use the streets in question.  That’s bad for the planet and bad for individual finances, health and safety.

Seems to me it’s just another way that those who drive get a free ride (sic) at the expense of both driving and non-driving taxpayers.   If cities were to charge market rates for metered parking – an ideal solution would probably also be time or congestion-based – drivers would bear more of the real cost driving.  Plus, maybe a few, knowing in advance the cost of parking, might switch to bikes or public transit. And maybe the rest would at least save a few loops around the block looking for parking, and save us all a few tons of carbon in the air. I couldn’t blame the city for using the extra parking meter money for car-centric services, but I’m thinking maybe some can also go to public transit and pedestrian and bike-centric improvements.  Just a thought.

Bonus round: what do you do when you get back to your car to feed the meter and discover you’re late and you’ve gotten a ticket?

I can say from experience that at least some people sheepishly pocket the ticket and feed the meter.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to just leave the ticket and keep your quarters?  I don’t think you’re likely to get another ticket within the hour.  I’m not even really sure if you could.  I mean, how many times can you be fined for the same offense?  Maybe it’s a new offense every two hours.   (I can say that in one incident I observed, a car left at a Cambridge meter for ten hours without paying once gathered only two tickets. Never you mind just how I observed that.)

Following the “meters are too damn cheap” logic, if the purpose of parking meters is to prevent “hoarding” and make the common resource available to more people, then shouldn’t tickets for going overtime or not paying be designed to keep that flow going?  Seems to me the fines should be steep enough to give scofflaws and gamblers pause, and also increasing over time, like overdue library book fines, so that even after you’ve gotten a ticket, you still have an incentive to get moving sooner rather than later.

It also puzzles me that the city would boot a car, essentially destroying a parking space for hours or days, when towing would liberate that space for others to use right away.  But that’s more than enough puzzlement for one Bunker Hill Day.  Be careful out there, whatever mode of transit you choose.