New York City parking meter


For awhile it looked like Chicago's disasterous experience with leasing its parking meters for the next 75 years—leaving perhaps a billion dollars on the table, consigning the streets to private control, and facing non-compete make-good payments that could outstrip the city's returns on what's left of the proceeds—would wreck the appetite of cities to privatize public assets.

Not so fast. America's biggest city is looking to put its 80,000-plus parking meters, a bit more than twice the number of those in Chicago, up for grabs. Needless to say, people are worried:

Sure, it makes sense for Bloomberg personally – he gets to govern for another year without having to make tough decisions on budget cuts and taxes – but for the city in the long run, it’s a disaster. Criminal, even. This is like a man with a wife and dozen dependent children selling his family's lottery winnings to J.G. Wentworth so he can go on a skiing vacation in Gstaad with his mistress before the divorce goes through.

New Yorkers can calm down—a bit, at least. As Mark Bergen explains, the first thing NYC seems to have learned is to at least not privatize the meters themselves, just their operation. It's written into the RFQ: "Any such arrangement would maintain the City's control over meter rates, installation and removal of meters, operating hours of metered spaces, enforcement and adjudications." They're trying to emphasize this: "New York would retain 'full control' of rates and violations enforcement, she said."

Also in the RFQ: evidence of how much money Chicago was leaving on the table by its refusal to raise rates. With twice as many meters, New York pulled in $147 million in 2010; in 2007, before the meters were sold, Chicago was bringing in $20 million.

New York pols have proven willing to raise rates already, so they can avoid the privatization of political will that was such an important part of Chicago's decision. They've also shown a willingness to plow that money into upgrading meters to pay-by-phone technology, a convenience Chicago's yet to see.

So why bother? Noah Kazis of Streetsblog NYC describes the hope that privatzing New York's meters could make up for the failure of public policy, at least on a smaller scale than in Chicago:

New York City’s on-street parking is wildly under-priced, when it is priced at all. On a typical commercial street outside Manhattan, the price for parking spot is fixed at $1.00 per hour. Where the city has introduced better calibrated parking policies, the streets function more efficiently.


Outsourcing enforcement might be an even more controversial move, but one with enormous promise. Right now, New York City’s parking enforcement is marred by politically driven, unequal treatment. Anyone with a parking placard, whether real or fake, can park where they like with impunity. The police allow Sunday church-goers to double-park for entire blocks of major thoroughfares like 125th Street or to block bike lanes on handshake deals. And of course, the police themselves disregard any and all parking regulations near their own precinct headquarters. Putting enforcement in private hands could eliminate this kind of political privilege in parking.

But these seem to be minor concerns compared to the two things New Yorkers really need to watch out for. The first, as Bergen writes, is simply getting the proper value for the lease. That they're not looking for an up-front payment is at least encouraging. The second is control over the streets; while NYC officials have been emphatic about controlling rates, even more important is retaining control of the public way. Public-private partnerships are larded with vague non-compete clauses of the sort that the Emanuel administration has been forced to arbitrate. At best, their lack of specificity means a legal fight; at worst, millions of dollars in fees.


Photograph: emilydickensonridesabmx (CC by 2.0)