L.A.'s broken meter blues

When the Los Angeles City Council voted last week to reaffirm its 2-year-old policy of ticketing cars parked in spaces with broken meters, blogs lit up with outrage from Los Angeles drivers. It’s hard enough to find an empty, legal parking spot in car-choked L.A. It seems downright churlish to penalize drivers for parking at faulty meters that won’t even accept their money.

Back before the 2010 policy went into effect, the city would let you park at a broken meter for free. But those were the old coin-only meters, and according to a city transportation spokesperson, 10% of them were broken at any one time — the result, for the most part, of vandalism. (How did they know? When workers repaired them, they found whatever was stuck into them to break them.)

The new coin and credit-card meters, however, are a different story. They rarely break, and when they do, they phone home (in the form of a text to technicians in the Department of Transportation), and they are generally fixed in three to four hours. The city now has 38,000 of the new meters and only 1,000 of the old ones, and those should be replaced by the new year. At any one moment, the city claims, only five of the new meters are broken.

If there are only five broken meters in the city, why bother to ticket the people who are parked at them? To discourage vandalism. Even the new meters can apparently be clogged with Super Glue, or whatever it is that parking meter vandals use.

OK. But we have a few suggestions for the city. That little notice on the meter that warns drivers that they park at a broken one at their own peril — make it bigger. How many people, juggling coins and credit cards, calculating time needed — let alone doing all that in the dark — have actually read the little warning sticker on the meter?


And if this is really about discouraging vandalism and not about increasing revenue, as transportation officials say, and if the meters stay broken for only a few hours, then why not limit the fine for parking at a broken meter to the maximum amount it would have cost to park there if the meter had been working? Not the whopping $63 fine for parking at an expired meter.

The same technology that makes it easier to park at meters with credit cards — eliminating the need to carry around a veritable sack of doubloons — also makes it easier for cash-strapped municipalities to draw more revenue from those meters. But at some point, City Hall tests the patience of its residents. Los Angeles Councilman Tom LaBonge captured that feeling just right when he cautioned the city not to use its technological savvy to wipe out any extra time left on meters when cars pull away. Searching for a parking space and finding that free time adds “a certain joy in life in the city of Los Angeles,” he said. City officials have no plans to do away with that particular bit of joy at the moment. But as LaBonge said, “I know they have it in their playbooks, and I don’t want them to call that play.”

Neither do we.