Thursday, July 22, 2010

Parking case study: Promoting obedience to law through less enforcement, greater facility

A story by Marty Toohey in the Austin Statesman ("Parking pay stations bring in more cash for Austin," July 22) shows how the goals of law enforcement may sometimes be better met by facilitating legal behavior than simply punishing the illegal. The article opens:
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.

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.
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 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).


Anonymous said...

The graffiti issue is interesting to me because we have the "adopt a bus stop" program where CapMetro gives people almost free reign to clean and decorate bus stops.

Why not go one step further and invite taggers to decorate them? Perhaps even make it into a competition where the public votes on which tags they like best to encourage ever more artistic tagging.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Tim, that's exactly the kind of idea I'm suggesting. No harm to anybody and might even be some benefit. In your example, it seems like the only difference between "decorating" a bus stop and graffiti is permission.

As for the idea of voting, along those lines I heard an interesting suggestion awhile back was having folks "grade" graffiti, creating two-way dialogue between graff writer and public. Don't know if it'd be workable or popular, but it's a thoughtful proposal.

Anonymous said...

We do need to get away from the criminal/prohibition paradigm. In health care, there's an interesting set of experiments going on around obesity.

As a society, it would be great if we were less obese and therefore had fewer costly health problems to address. But we can't be standing over people and ordering them not to eat fries on penalty of...what exactly? So some companies (Disney is one) have started to experiment with the "default" option for side dishes. What if the default side dish with your burger was a sliced apple. Would people say "No" to the apple, and affirmatively order the fries? Apparently not. If a burger starts to come with a healthy side dish, people take it and eat it and are pretty happy about it. If you tell people you are going to punish them for eating fries, well, you can imagine the outcome there. Me, I love fries, but mostly I don't care that much and I love a sliced apple too.

So there you go. You promote a social good not by forcing everyone to do something you think is right, but by giving them better options and seeing what happens.

Don Dickson said...

Has any state yet implemented your pay-at-the-pump scheme? Inquiring minds wanna know!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Not to my knowledge, Donald, though some have switched to no-fault.