Friday, July 8, 2011

The Online Parking Game

I have been living in Seattle for a week, with a car but with no reserved parking space, and have therefore been playing a game with parking enforcement officers, similar to "Mister X", a board game where all players but one gang up on the last player, "Mr. X", and try to catch him as he moves stealthily around Manhattan.

If I lived here, I would know what to expect: the patterns of the routes and schedules, the amounts of the fines. My decisions would be stochastic. But as I am new here, it's an online game in which every day I learn a little bit more about my adversaries. The streets near my flat require paying to park on the street between 8am and 6pm. Getting back from Microsoft after 6pm is no problem, but in the morning, being out and on the road by 8am is a challenge, so every morning I take a few more minutes, hoping that no parking enforcement officer will come and give me a ticket between 8 and 8:10. Then it's too early to fight traffic across the bridge to Redmond, so instead I head to a cafe. If I go to a cafe on First Hill, I park on some small street, hoping that parking is not reserved to residents, or that parking officers would be lenient with a car with a California license plate. If I go to a cafe down below, REI has free parking for the first hour, but only opens at 9am, so what is one supposed to do between 8:15 and 9am? Once I did pay to park on the street between 8:15 and 9, but I have a strange, almost Freudian reluctance to slipping money into the parking meter coin slot. So, today I am leaving the car across the street from the cafe, simply hoping to get lucky. At 9am I will move the car to REI (of which I am a frequent customer), and then I just need to make sure that I am on my way by 10am. Will these various online choices spare me a ticket? How much is the ticket, if I get one? Is the game worth playing? Only future will tell.

That's the Online Parking Game. So far, I am ahead.

In Berkeley, near campus, parking is limited to 2 hours, and during the day while we discuss research work is regularly interrupted by people saying: "Let's take a break: I need to move my car". The policy thus plants breaks from work throughout the day in a natural manner. Very healthy!

In Providence, it's definitely worth playing the game, since tickets are only twenty dollars. In addition, whenever I get a ticket, I have a feeling of righteousness as I pay it: by being such a good citizen in my prompt payments, I am helping the city deal with its deep budget problems. In addition the police officers are mean -- they're clearly out to get you -- so the game is irresistible. There can be unexpected twists: once I parked to run a quick errand, leaving my son in the car and not putting money in the parking meter. A police officer showed up, and when my son explained that I would be right back, the officer reacted by suggesting a compromise, asking him if he had any money on him. Unfortunately he didn't, so when I got back to the car there was a ticket on my windshield.

In Manhattan I don't play the game. I am afraid. It's a vast and dangerous world out there. I am scared that if a police officer finds me parked five minutes overtime, he will send me to rot in jail for twenty years. So I go to a parking garage and pay the attendant whatever amount he asks for.

Here is what I wish google or bing provided: a detailed map of the city, with the block-by-block parking rules. For all I know, if I went a few blocks away from my flat I would be able to park in a side alley with no constraints. But I do not know that, and exploring takes time. Why can't our online resources help with that?


  1. I'm not sure if you'll find San Francisco's upcoming system [ ] to be heaven or hell: variable, demand-based pricing, and an app to tell you where nearby free spots are.

  2. I took a look. I am suspicious: how do we know it's done right? How can I verify that I am not being charged more than I should be?


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