Are Parking Tickets Basically a Regressive Tax?
In short, yes.
I will be the first to admit, parking tickets perform a valuable function: their purpose is to help control traffic and gridlock; and also to ensure that people don’t leave their cars on the street for indeterminate amounts of time1. In theory. In practice however, parking tickets (and the regulations surrounding them) amount to a game of cat and mouse. I will speak mainly of how this system works in Los Angeles, as that is obviously the area I am most familiar with.
Many streets in Los Angeles have signs every 100 feet or so that explain the parking regulations that apply to that street. You will have anti-gridlock zones, street cleaning dates/times, permit parking zones, loading zones, bus lanes, fire lanes, handicap zones, and meters. Some streets have so many of these that reading the signs is tantamount to deciphering ancient hieroglyphics, and I sometimes take great pride in being able to figure them out. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to do so from your car as you drive by, but I like to live dangerously. This of course is of no help to someone who cannot read, nor for people who don’t understand English.
The majority of parking violations I have seen in Los Angeles tend to be about $60. So for sake of argument, that is the amount I will use here. Of course, many tickets are more, and if you park in an anti-gridlock zone or a tow-away zone, you are also liable for the towing charges, which can be significant. On to my major points.
Parking tickets are a regressive tax mainly for the following reasons:
- $60 is a much larger percentage of the expendable income of a lower income person than they are of a high income person’s income. This is obvious.
- In Los Angeles, if the ticket is not paid in full within 21 days, the fine doubles2. Many poor people have trouble coming up with this unexpected expense within the time limit, so basically get hit twice. A higher income person can of course pay the ticket the same day online.
- Many lower income people cannot afford to buy or rent a residence that includes an off-street parking spot. They also cannot usually afford to pay for parking on a daily basis, which is more expensive anyway. So not only is it harder for a poor person to pay a ticket, they are more likely to even get a ticket in the first place.
So, if you take all 3 of those points together, you see that poor people share a disproportionally high amount of the burden in paying parking tickets. Then there is this tidbit:
I have no idea what the city does with the revenue they receive from parking violations. I have Googled it many times to no avail. I suppose I could submit a FOIA request to the city to find the answer, but I have not done so. If anyone out there has any information on this, I would love to hear it.
So what is the solution to this problem? I really don’t know. As I said at the opening, parking tickets seem to be necessary. The only ways I could see to make this system a little more fair are to either offer a grace period, some sort of system of warnings (ie first ticket in a given time period is a warning, etc.), offer more free parking locations, or lower the amounts on the fines. Of course many of these may lead to more citations, but wouldn’t that only serve to bring in more revenue? Does anyone else out there have any ideas? I’d love to hear them.
1Unfortunately, in my neighborhood some people simply shuffle their cars around on street cleaning days. I have no idea whether these people have jobs or not, as they always seem to be able to park their cars in the same exact spot, week after week. There are also large trucks that sell fruit/snacks, take up enough space for 2 cars, and seem to have some sort of deal worked out with the local parking enforcement officers. Shady.
2 I have serious issues with the legality of this practice. If a bank loaned me $60 and then charged me $60 interest if I paid the loan back after 21 days, they would be breaking the law. I have asked parking enforcement officers about this and have yet to receive a clear answer.