Related Posts with Thumbnails

Friday, January 20, 2012

Parking protection rackets

South Africa's informal car guards were featured this week in the New York Times in an article that highlights the stories of the guards as well as the problems with this practice.

It is a phenomenon that happens around the world.

Latin America has them. Mexico City's informal parking attendants have been featured in various media. Last year I saw an informal car guard operating on a Sunday along a restaurant/market street in the beautiful Buenos Aires district of Palermo Viejo.

They are widespread around Asia too. They were familiar when I lived in Malaysia for several years. My father-in-law, a police officer in Singapore in the 1960s, tells me that 'jaga kereta' (Malay for car guard) were also common in Singapore at that time.

Informal parking attendants provoke polarized opinions. Car guards are often feared and loathed. But their existence also reflects serious unemployment and poverty problems, so that a draconian enforcement approach seems harsh and unfair.

My report on Parking Policy in Asian Cities for the ADB makes the point that this phenomenon seems to emerge to fill a vacuum:
If parking in a vicinity is not managed efficiently by governments, informal fee collectors may step in, as seen in Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, and some Indian cities. In Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Manila such activities occur whenever and wherever the official fee collection system is absent but where demand remains high.

So the car guard phenomenon is best understood as a sign of our failure to manage on-street parking properly. 

These guys are telling us something important. Where parking is saturated for long periods of the day, then motorists will be willing to pay for parking. If cities don't do the pricing, then informal attendants often will.

Harsh action against them is futile (others take their place) and just hurts people who are already poor and marginalised. But the actions of illegal parking guards ARE often problematic. Wouldn't it be better to provide legitimate employment to legal parking attendants by improving and expanding legal parking fee collection systems? This would enhance the level of security and trust on both sides of the transaction.

Indian cities are an interesting case. Most have legal parking attendants, providing employment and managing parking (after a fashion). That is a start. But with weak contractual arrangements and very low prices, the contractors are often tempted to overcharge.  The City of Makati in Metro Manila does a better job, with uniformed attendants wielding digital devices.

Arresting illegal parking attendants is not going to solve the problem. Filling the vacuum with legitimate parking management may.

A Makati parking attendant with digital device.

Do you have any insights or anecdotes on informal parking attendants or car guards?

Monday, January 16, 2012

"A rethinking of what parking is in the first place"

If your parking policy debates are going in circles, there is a good chance the protagonists are 'framing' parking in totally different ways. 

They have different ideas about 'what parking is in the first place', as the Boston Globe's Leon Neyfakh puts in in his short feature, which focuses on the rise of performance pricing for parking in US cities. 

I have written before that parking debates often involve different ways to frame the whole idea of parking. So I liked this bit in the article:
At one level, the idea is a novel piece of urban engineering made possible because of new parking technology. But at another, it amounts to a rethinking of what parking is in the first place — not a public resource to be shared by all, but a scarce commodity whose price should fluctuate depending on how badly people want it. 
Possible translation into policy-speak:  parking is not a public good, it is a private good which can have a market price.  

Does that claim shock you?

How could parking in public space (such as in a street) be a private good? Well, you need to understand that when policy wonks use the term 'private good' they do NOT necessarily mean it must be privatized. It just means that it is both rivalrous and excludable.

Now, you CAN try to pretend that parking is a public good if you really want to. This means you would refuse to ration it (or 'exclude' some people some of the time). But, unfortunately, you can't magically stop parking from being rivalrous. If I am parking in a specific spot you can't park there at the same time. So you end up not with a public good but with a common-property resource (or 'commons good'). This means it is non-excludable (or inconvenient to exclude) but it is rivalrous (or 'subtractable'). It also means that you are likely to face a tragedy of the commons situation, such as saturated parking with lots of cruising for parking and much moaning about the parking 'shortage'.

Image from Living Economics
By the way, we have lots of choices on how to manage common-pool resources. Shifting them into the private goods box (eg by pricing it or allocating property rights) is one approach. Others include central planning or local community solutions, such as the common property regimes highlighted by Elinor Ostrum's Nobel winning work on common pool resources). 

Further into the article we can see some of these ideas applied to parking and expressed in everyday English:
At the heart of the early resistance to meters was a sense of entitlement to free street parking that has endured in America to this day. We carry a deep-seated belief that people should be free to go where they please on the streets we’ve built, and that a city’s curb space is public — that, like air and water, it belongs to everyone.
To Shoup and his adherents, this is the wrong way to see it: Curbside parking isn’t a shared resource, like Boston Common, but rather a valuable piece of real estate, managed by the city, that should be priced according to what it’s worth. As Shoup put it, “We have a problem with parking exceptionalism in this country. Somehow people think that the normal laws of supply and demand don’t apply.”

So Shoup's thinking on parking, even on-street parking, sees it as a 'private good' (in the policy-wonk sense of the term). This causes dismay to people who are thinking of it as somehow 'public' or 'common'.

This post was about on-street parking. What about off-street parking? That's a whole different story. Conventional parking policy treats off-street parking as like the restrooms we require with each building and we should probably treat parking more like the cooked-food outlets that the market provides and planners usually allow in any walkable district. More on that some other time.

Are parking debates where you live going in circles? Is it because of different ideas about what parking is in the first place?