I Forgot to Pay My Parking Ticket. That Got Me Thinking.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I finally paid my parking ticket last week, but only because my wife reminded me. The ticket arrived unbidden on my windshield while we were on vacation. I parked too long in what I should have recalled but didn’t was a one-hour zone. I had no defense and sought none. As one who tries to be a good citizen, I stuck the small manila envelope above the visor on the driver’s side of the car, planning to pay up as soon as possible ... and immediately forgot its existence. We arrived home from vacation with the ticket still hidden above the visor.
Until my wife pointed it out.
I felt foolish, but perhaps I shouldn’t have. Parking is one of the most thoroughly studied aspects of driving, and one thing the research tells us is that forgetting to pay tickets is common. That’s why polite reminder letters from the municipality whose laws you violated seem to help.
Most people seem to take parking rules seriously. We put money in the meters. We don’t overstay. We pay the fines. But why? Although the fine certainly matters, obedience seems related to one’s views about the fairness of parking norms and enforcement procedures.
In a sort of backhanded confirmation of this proposition, a 2006 study of diplomats (who can freely disregard most parking rules, as they can’t be forced to pay tickets) discovered that those whose countries are most corrupt at home or whose populations are most hostile to the U.S. wind up with significantly more parking violations than those whose countries are better governed or friendlier toward ours.
Still, most of us try to follow the rules. Oh, sure, there are exceptions, like the Yale colleague I spotted a few years back pulling up to an expired meter, and then, instead of inserting money, taking an unpaid parking ticket from inside his car and sticking it beneath his wiper in the presumed hope of fooling the next enforcement officer to happen along.
What’s not clear is why he bothered. In most places, on-street parking is a bargain. My wife and I live in the suburbs, so we’re spoiled: Pretty much anywhere we go, parking is free. But even in the cities, parking tends to be far too cheap, economists say.
Tom Vanderbilt, in his fine book “Traffic,” tells us that spaces in municipal garages go for an average of five times the cost of metered spaces on the street. And not only are the spaces cheap; often the parking fines are too.
New Haven, Connecticut, where I work, recently raised the fine for violating its parking regulations after discovering that “paying for all-day parking as opposed to receiving a ticket for not doing so saves a driver only 50 cents.” Sounds quite convincing, until we discover that the increase is only $5. With parking tight in the city, rates for the handful of downtown lots are constantly increasing. One suspects that the deterrent effect will turn out to be small.
Indeed, the fact that the city increased the fines by only $5 helps illustrate the uneasy relationship between drivers and urban planners. Planners hate cars; drivers love them. Drivers have more votes than planners, so parking stays cheap.
At least, cheap in dollars. In congested cities, we ration parking by restricting the number of spaces. The problem is, it doesn’t really work — not if the intention is to reduce the number of drivers. Okay, yes, limits are bound to have an effect at the margin. But according to city-by-city measurement by the Federal Highway Administration, streets remain as congested as ever. A committed driver will burn fossil fuels for half an hour circling the block to search for an opening, not so much to save money as to proclaim the remarkable synergy between himself and his beloved automobile.
The love affair is easy to relate to. Small surprise, then, that we turn out to be weirdly territorial about parking. Here’s Vanderbilt again: “Studies have shown that people take longer to leave a parking spot when another driver is waiting, even though they predict they will not.” True, if you glance at the underlying study, the added wait is only an average of 7 seconds, but those precious seconds raise the time to exit a space from about 32 to about 39 seconds — a jump of 21 percent, bound to be noticed if you’re the one waiting. The same study also found that male drivers move faster when a car perceived as “high status” is waiting; for women there was almost no difference. This might suggest that women are, in parking lots at least, more territorial than men; or it might suggest that men, even when ensconced behind the wheels of their big mean machines, more readily yield to indicia of status and power.
Which brings us back to my parking ticket. Nobody has more status and power than the state, so why didn’t I pay my ticket at once? Because the state’s status and power are not strongly signaled. The face value of the ticket was relatively low — $20 — and paying late increased the fine only by $5. Now imagine increasing both by a factor of 100. Were the fine $2,000 and the late fee $500, most of us would pay on time. As a matter of fact, we’d go out of our way never to be ticketed. We might even forego our beloved cars and turn to public transportation.
Except that we wouldn’t. We’d rise in revolt instead, demanding a return to cheap parking. We’d be wrong, but we’d win.
Which helps explain why both fines and prices stay so low. And why I took so long to pay my ticket.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility.”
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