A year after Austin started replacing its worn-out parking meters with new pay stations, the city says it is issuing significantly fewer tickets while collecting more money.It fascinates me that people were more willing to comply with the law than you'd have guessed by the number of parking tickets given out in years past. It's an example of how, in an era of over-enforcement - where politicians aim to solve seemingly every social problem through criminal laws or new rules forbidding unwanted behavior - there's frequently a lot more utilitarian bang for the buck from facilitating and incentivizing obedience to the law than from larding on more and more penalties.
The pay stations — solar-powered yellow-and-gray machines that spit out receipts for drivers to stick to their windshields — were responsible for a 26 percent increase in parking-meter revenue, according to the city, which is planning to replace the rest of its old meters during the next year.
The new pay stations break down less often than the old meters did. They also take credit card payments, so people do not have to have change handy or buy prepaid meter cards.
End result: The city is issuing about 36 percent fewer tickets since it started installing the pay stations.
"What we've seen is that people have been willing to pay if we make it easier for them, as opposed to taking their chances with a ticket," said Rob Spillar , the city's transportation director.
The same observation can be made of high surcharges in Texas' Driver Responsibility Program, which has boosted the number of unlicensed, uninsured Texans in the state by more than a million people thanks to large civil surcharges in addition to criminal penalties, though its proponents said the opposite would happen. Sure, there are scofflaws who just won't pay, but the program's greatest failure is that it makes it too difficult for those who want to do the right thing to comply with the law. (Hopefully the proposed Amnesty and Indigency rules will in part assuage that problem.)
The lesson applies most especially to economic "crimes" committed by average people. In the case of parking tickets, "offenders" turned out to be willing to pay more if the city made it easier for them. (I can say from personal experience I'm more likely to add enough time on the meter using a credit card than I am using whatever random amount of change happens to be in my pocket.)
Another good example is criminalizing failure to carry auto liability insurance. I've suggested a "pay at the pump" scheme mostly because I think you'll never get every driver to individually purchase insurance, no matter how much you punish them. It's just not practical to force that many individuals against their will to enter into private commercial transactions, which is why after years of increasingly harsh enforcement tactics, the statewide uninsured motorist rate still hovers around 22%. Pay at the pump would make it not just easy for drivers to comply but impossible not to, using "coercion" that's more subtle than a cop with a gun and a badge.
Enforcement has its place, it's just often not the only or always the most effective solution. I chatted briefly the other day with Chief Art Acevedo of the Austin PD about graffiti and he readily agreed with me that rapid cleanup is far more effective as a deterrent than the threat of arrest, which in practice for most graff writers is relatively small. However, I also think it's worth exploring other non-enforcement approaches to diverting graff writers into productive and even economically beneficial pursuits.
The theme here: When criminal law is inadequate to solve a problem, or when it's being asked to solve social problems that should be beyond its purview, solutions should be more frequently sought outside the comfortable paradigm of criminalizing and punishing unwanted behavior. And such solutions will work better if they focus on aligning themselves with how people actually behave (e.g., allowing credit-card use for parking) than maximally punishing them for failing to comply with unreasonable demands by the state (requiring coinage in an age when they're becoming anachronisms).