At the end of 2020, the National League of Cities released a report that surveyed how the revenue of over 900 municipalities’ was impacted as a result of the pandemic. According to the report, average revenues across the surveyed cities declined by 21% — coupled with increased expenditures of 17% — creating a combined budget gap of about $90 billion for 2020 alone. Starved tax revenues, unemployment, disruption to government services, and an overall climate of uncertainty bred a national fiscal crisis.
As we round the corner of the pandemic, cities are experiencing optimistic signs of growth with higher revenue projections than previously estimated for 2021. However, when cities contemplate their economic tools to boost revenue, a tool that has particularly regressive consequences is the increased issuance of parking tickets to balance budgets. In driver-centric cities, parking fines can make up a significant proportion, if not the majority, of total fine revenues. In 2015, the City of Los Angeles raised $152 million from parking fees which represented 64% of the city’s total fines, penalties, and fees. Surges in ticket writing prompt residents to see parking enforcement as a means of revenue generation, not traffic or safety management.
This tendency of cities to increase parking ticket issuance in downtown neighborhoods has particularly negative consequences for low-income people and communities of color. A 2018 study conducted by Noli Brazil from the University of California Davis found that in Los Angeles, parking tickets were disproportionately levied in neighborhoods with a larger presence of renters, young adults, and black residents. Parking fines in these vulnerable neighborhoods serve as gateways to higher-level offenses and citations, as residents often lack the financial resources to make timely payments. In Los Angeles alone, 20% of all parking infractions are late fees. These regressive policies have created massive costs and missed opportunities for communities of color and cities alike.
As vaccines are administered, economies recover, and cities begin to reopen, there is a window of opportunity for cities to change the norm around parking enforcement. One way of addressing inequities in parking enforcement is by tackling the issue as a market failure in parking pricing. High rates of parking violation signal that parking is too expensive for the communities around it. Inaccessible parking fares not only lead to higher parking citations but also increase collection and administrative costs for cities. Adopting a parking pricing strategy that takes into account the financial reality of users in lower-income neighborhoods could turn a punitive and regressive system into an equitable incentive-based approach to revenue collection.
One way of approaching this paradigm shift in parking management is by adopting variable pricing. Under a variable pricing model, parking operators can adjust the price of parking based on location, time, and user. The intent is to collect more revenue by matching price with demand. Additionally, this tool has great potential to address the equity concerns around parking and enforcement. City leaders could capture greater revenues by implementing price targeting mechanisms that offer dynamic pricing options based on the user’s ability to pay for parking. For example, city leaders could offer lower parking rates in communities with higher barriers to mobility and increase rates in congested areas or areas of the city where transit is more readily accessible. This would also incentivize greater use of transit thereby promoting environmental goals. Variable pricing is therefore a strategy that helps cities maximize profits and promote more equitable and accessible fares in vulnerable neighborhoods.
Second, a fully digital parking payment platform could allow city officials to better understand “hot zones” for ticketing to see if the main problem is really lack of payment or lack of mobility options. The areas that see more ticketing are more likely to be mobility deserts where residents have more barriers to transportation access. Increasing data collection in these areas would allow cities to implement more accessible parking pricing strategies while gaining a greater understanding of the mobility challenges faced by residents of these communities. In the long term, the ability to holistically review ticketing zones and trends can build a stronger case for the need to increase bus routes in lower-income communities, ensure connectivity between transit and other modes of transportation, and ensure that mobility deserts do not continue to punish people through increased ticketing and parking fines.
This approach is a win-win for cities as it yields higher revenues at more reasonable fares while allowing for a reduction in overhead related to collections. Most importantly, this system allows for the collection of valuable data that can be used to harness insight into the evolving mobility needs of all urban residents.
The transition to a post-pandemic world represents a unique opportunity to re-envision how cities think about their future mobility goals and tie those goals not just to revenue generation, but to overall mobility access and equity. Data on ticket issuance, mobility deserts, and dynamic pricing can help cities move away from a punitive system and towards one with equity and accessibility woven throughout, all without having to compromise revenue collection.
Marco Rodriguez-Gomez is a government relations intern at Passport, an operating system for managing parking, enforcement, permitting and micro-mobility.