Mutant Meter Maids
Last March, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti set in motion a pandemic-year experiment that was enthusiastically received by participants in the city’s notoriously car-based culture. With the flip of a switch, most of the city’s “smart” parking meters went dormant. Punishments would not be meted for the crime of forgetting to move one’s car because, the thinking went, if the city was asking everyone to remain homebound, why also force them to leave the house in order to park and re-park their cars?
It was a huge relief. Parking in LA can be a bloodsport. It’s a more crowded city than most imagine; by certain metrics, it is the densest city in America, and the region is home to more cars per capita than any other. From the city’s perspective, opportunities to give parking tickets are more or less limitless; avoiding getting one takes attention and cunning. What’s more, the landmass people think of as the city of LA is a patchwork of separate municipalities, such as West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Culver City, and Santa Monica—all with their own opaque parking rules. Within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles, street parking signs are often long logic puzzles about who can park where and when. Sometimes, signs require one to be familiar with vehicular dimensions, usually to prevent RVs from parking overnight, a discreet way of keeping the transient population moving. There are also unstated rules not found on signs. For example, a person cannot leave their car in the same spot for more than seventy-two hours, a number plucked from thin air. The city maintains a special snitch line to file this specific complaint. Its number is 1-800-ABANDON, and it receives over three hundred calls each day. Also, there is a street sweeping scheme that an audit recently determined had no clear methodology and yet is the most common cause of getting a parking ticket in the City of Los Angeles.
Within the boundaries of the City of Los Angeles, street parking signs are often long logic puzzles about who can park where and when.
The parking ticket reprieve made sense as the pandemic hit, because the city’s six thousand five hundred miles of road were, in the beginning, eerily empty. There’s a story we tell ourselves about the purpose of parking tickets that goes something like this: we have parking tickets because, without them, the curbside would be chaos; a tragedy of the commons is avoided by vigilant enforcement so that the flow of traffic and turnover of spaces is kept high. The threat of tickets ensures that in parts of the city where space is most valuable, nobody can occupy space for too long; selfishness—or forgetfulness—must be met with punishment.
But the true purpose of parking tickets now is to give cities a dependable way to raise money. This is where Mayor Garcetti’s commonsensical pandemic experiment ran into a big problem.
As the pandemic caused other sources of city revenue to disappear, LA began seriously flirting with the possibility of reversing its widely popular parking ticket moratorium. It wasn’t because the pandemic was on the wane. Quite the opposite. At the point of the flirting—midsummer of 2020—case rates were at least ten times what they were in March, and only expected to worsen. And they did. The city said it wanted—really, at this point, needed—many of its citizens to remain at home. But it was also facing revenue shortfalls, including an estimated $25.3 million lost by turning off the parking fine revenue. Prior to suspending parking tickets, the city had planned to rake in something close to the $123 million it earned off parking tickets in 2019. In October, the LA city administrative officer, Richard H. Llewellyn Jr., released a financial status report detailing the shortfalls and stating that losses “will not be recovered and will increase through October and November as a result of relaxed parking enforcement. . . . Monthly receipts should increase once parking enforcement resumes.” By mid-October, LA had ended its brief controlled experiment and began, once again, to issue parking citations.
This made people furious. On Twitter, Tommy Gallegos, an artist and journalist who has worked for the local online news website LA Taco, fumed after his car was towed: “Because someone complained it hasn’t moved ‘in a month’ I’m so angry right now. Fuck you @MayorOfLA, sorry for quarantining & keeping my car in a legal spot (!) to help your failing city from falling more ill to the plague you ignore.” Pete Keeley, online copy chief at the Hollywood Reporter, who wrote an open letter to the mayor called “Never Bring Back Street Cleaning,” observed on Twitter how the city’s continued enforcement of parking rules during the pandemic was zombie behavior reminiscent of a parasitic fungus that infects the brains of insects. He posted a screenshot from the popular video game The Last of Us Part II, about a zombie apocalypse, showing a character walk across the bleak husk of Seattle, where the parking meters protrude into the streetscape like the cordycep’s stroma sprouting from its host’s head. Keeley wrote: “The most real part of this game is that years into a zombie outbreak, someone’s still maintaining the parking meters.”
By the end of October, Mayor Garcetti walked back his decision without walking it back at all. Parking tickets would resume, but he would extend a $20 discount to those who paid off their tickets within forty-eight hours. The mayor tweeted that the purpose of the discount was to assist “Angelenos facing economic hardship during the Covid-19 pandemic,” but such a benefit could only be obtained by people who were not facing economic hardship, or at least sufficiently well-off to pay the ticket early, and at that time 15 percent of the city’s workforce was still jobless. Furthermore, if residents had any interest in complying with the mayor’s pleadings that people should not leave their homes, the resumption of parking enforcement for street sweeping had residents in a double bind.
A clue as to why the city would put its populace in this catch-22 came in the form of an award given to the city’s Department of Transportation by the National Parking Association—a nonprofit that calls itself “the leading advocate for the parking industry” (its website: We Are Parking dot org). The award celebrated LA’s work with Conduent Inc. to benefit “low-income and economically disadvantaged motorists, including those affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.” Conduent is a publicly traded “business process outsourcing” company valued at over $1.5 billion. What, exactly, is business process outsourcing, you ask? Conduent manages the payments of your parking ticket fines and tracks you down when you do not pay. It has been awarded contracts in Los Angeles during the past thirty-five years, going back to when it was a division of Xerox. But because Conduent makes money based on the number of parking tickets given in the City of Los Angeles, the public exigency to protect human life was, according to Conduent’s public filings, severely hurting its bottom line.
In Los Angeles, Conduent earns close to $5 on nearly every parking ticket issued, between $21 and $27 for any citation not paid on time that goes into “special collections,” as well as 2.5 percent of all money collected as a result of “scofflaw enforcement,” such as the use of a fleet of cars equipped with automated license plate readers. Thus, every time you get a ticket or get towed, Conduent’s shareholders get a taste, and the decision to stop ticketing stung. In September 2019, the city paid Conduent a fee of $740,439 for processing 173,405 citations that month; in April 2020, Conduent received just $195,562 for 43,848 citations—a 74 percent fall-off. In 2020, Conduent’s revenue for parking tickets and delinquent collections from all of its cities under contract crashed 38 percent, from $850 million in 2019 to $525 million in 2020. If Mayor Garcetti’s initial decree was popular with the four million people who live in Los Angeles, there is one man who probably didn’t like it very much: Carl Icahn, who by some accounts owns at least 18 percent of Conduent, and who once said he got rich by “studying natural stupidity.”
The corporate creep into municipal functions has been happening for as long as cities have existed—and has only increased since the first parking meter was plunged into the curbs of Oklahoma City by the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company in 1935. But cities began outsourcing internal operations to private corporations in a serious way after the 2008 financial crisis as they sought to cut expenditures by downsizing staff instead of increasing taxes. This trend reached its misguided apex when then-Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley sold off the city’s interests in all future parking meter revenue for the next seventy-five years to an investor group paying just $1.16 billion (an amount that has already been recouped, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, with more than sixty years’ worth of revenue to go). The Chicago case is an egregious example and illuminating in its own way; more instructive are examples like Los Angeles, which, through Conduent, was able to simultaneously cut costs and increase revenue through technologies, ranging from digital transactions to surveillance tools, rendering future parking revenue predictable for future budgets. You want government to run more like a business? Here’s your regular, steadily upticking revenue, delivered quarterly. Only, the pandemic revealed the truth of the corporate-government relationship as less a beneficial partnership and more a Faustian bargain. Are cities and their leaders more aligned with the interests of human life, or the interests of corporate shareholders?
You want government to run more like a business? Here’s your regular, steadily upticking revenue, delivered quarterly.
To the outsourcing companies performing municipal operations, the customer isn’t you or me but the city and the people who run it. The convergence of corporate jargon and political doublespeak might, for a moment, make it seem like that would include you and me, but we are a step removed, just out of frame, numbers to feed the algorithm, juicing the profit margins for shareholders—which, in Conduent’s case, consist mostly of a handful of financial institutions and a billionaire who revels in the ruthless exploitation of people he holds in contempt for their exploitability. Look around and you begin to see corporations like Conduent everywhere, worming their way into all manner of public processes. They have names like CGI and HPE, FIS and Genpact, Sitel and EXL, Concentrix and Cognizant. There are others, too, with better name recognition. IBM, certainly. Or Salesforce, which California recently tapped to develop its vaccine database. The system Salesforce created is called “My Turn,” and it has been riddled with embarrassing flaws, including the fact—reported by the Los Angeles Times—that it is impossible to book appointments for residents of South LA at the vaccine clinic in South LA.
The flaws of the privately built database for public health have been disproportionately felt by a community that has a majority Black and Latino population and is relatively poor. This is no accident. Parking tickets place a similarly undue burden on the same populations. A 2015 report, put out by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and other California legal aid groups, found that as unpaid fees such as parking tickets compounded, more than four million Californians have had their driver’s license suspended. In total, California had over $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt from fines that the state used “as a source of revenue.” And, the report concluded, “these suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns.” The suspensions fell, of course, only on those who could not afford to pay the fines, punishing the poor under the banner of public safety.
In his 1982 paper titled “Parking Tickets and Class Repression,” Otwin Marenin, a professor in the department of criminal justice at Washington State University, concluded that “the state exists to protect interests” and a “common interest of all groups in society is the maintenance of regularity and the protection of lives and property.” Yet certain lives and certain property are clearly of greater value to the state, and its corporate interests, than others. The pandemic has revealed much, including the fact that parking tickets serve not as a punishment for the crime of forgetting, but as a significant profit center for the corporate cordyceps burrowing deep into our municipal nerve centers. Even when easing up on parking tickets is in the public interest, our public officials bow down.