Tuesday, June 30, 2009

An even better parking meter

Chicago recently privatized its parking meters, ripping out the old coin-operated ones that stood at each space with a smaller number of centralized, coin-and-credit card-fed boxes that print out receipts to put in your windshield. I think they could have done a much better job:

First, instead of paper receipts, regular parkers should have little RFID badges, perhaps that plug into cigarette lighters to recharge. This way, meter maids can just walk down a street and tell without even looking if a car has gone over its limit.

But the real benefit of the RFID badges would be that they'd make for a much more interesting, targeted payment system. For one thing, you could enable people to pay for parking remotely. Instead of having to walk to their cars to feed the meter every 2 hours, they could do it online or over the phone.

But part of the reason you wouldn't want this functionality would be that you don't want people to hog spots all day. So, in exchange, you'd raise the prices, perhaps substantially. (They should probably be generally much higher than they are now anyway). That would both raise more money, and enhance the quality of life for people who frequently don't have any choice but to park in a metered spot for a long time.

Now, this type of thing often has the unfortunate side effect of making life a lot more expensive for the poor and lower-middle class, so you could create a variable pricing system tied in part to individual income, deduced from the state income tax receipts. You could also make the pricing somewhat dynamic, based on demand.

This idea has a number of potential pitfalls, but it would a) raise more money; b) make parking much more convenient for people; c) be much better calibrated to individual income levels; d) make enforcement much easier and e) generate boatloads of interesting and useful data about who parks where and when.


Unknown said...

Abe, I know that for some reason you've made fun of me for years for being an ACLU stalwart, but this is such a terrible idea. RFIDs are incredibly easy to hack, discreetly, track, etc. It would serve as a giant privacy violation for drivers/car owners. I guarantee that the CPD would illegally use them to track somebody within 6 months of operation.

On top of that, there are HUGE practical barriers towards implementation of this plan. First of all, there is the issue of universality - only Chicago drivers would have these. What about out-of-town cars, or even suburban vehicles? Then there's cost: all those RFID devices would cost a lot of money. What happens if yours breaks? Can you still park? Would you even know if it is broken? Would we still have infrastructure for payment in an old-fashioned, coin-based way? It'd be awfully expensive to maintain two payment infrastructures in Chicago. And these are just off the top of my head.

...see you in Chicago this weekend, where you can either acknowledge my superior and farsighted arguments or fight it out with me for an hour before somebody begs us to to talk about something more interesting than parking policy, like sports or (if we're lucky) zoning.

Unknown said...

From my phone, or else this would be longer+better.

I concede there are significant implementation challenges, and the privacy concerns are real.

However, potential for abuse isn't a reason not to implement a technology, it's a reason to design it to make abuse difficult, and create strong oversight. The police have guns, too, which they abuse all the time. But we don't take those away, we work to regulate their use, and prosecute abuses.

RFID is trivial to hack, but there'd be no good reason to do so: all the unit can do is broadcast its ID, and the much more secure central system takes care of payment, etc. Besides, RFID is already used for a very similar application - tollway fast passes. You could probably use the exact same boxes that are already in peoples cars for this.

The newly-installed meters already take care of the paper passes necessary for out-of-towners, and they would only need slight upgrades to support this.

In fact, most of your other objections apply in exactly equal measure to fast passes, which are seeing wide adoption and are much beloved. If anything, I think this system would be as beloved by drivers, and would be a great source of increased revenue, while making pricing both smarter AND more fair for a critical piece of ubiquitous city infrastructure.

Finally, I do sometimes make fun of your privacy advocacy, but I think it's valuable. Technology is often made more useful by the sacrifice of some privacy, but too much sacrifice would be just as bad as too little, and society benefits from a vigorous debate between advocates of both (not necessarily diametrically-opposed) sides. And I'm pretty sure I've given money to the ACLU in the past, and will do so in the future.

Thanks for your really well-thought-out objections, btw. And what dates are you going to be in town?