L.A.'s broken-parking-meter scheme may soon expire

A Westwood man feeds one of the newfangled L.A. city parking meters, this one in downtown Los Angeles. The meter also takes credit cards.
(Patrick D. Fallon / For The Times)

This post has been updated and corrected, as indicated below.

Remember the scene early on in “Cool Hand Luke” when Paul Newman whacks the heads off those parking meters?

I loved it. You did too -- admit it.

I don’t know whether that’s one of Mike Gatto’s favorite movies, but I hope so. He’s the Los Angeles Democratic assemblyman who wrote the bill that would smack down cities like L.A. that ticket people for parking at meters that turn out to be broken. L.A. sticks Angelenos with a $73 ticket.


It’s one of the city’s more cynical ways of making money, and Gatto wants it to stop. We already pay, as he points out, “for street maintenance, meter installation and meter upkeep.” Cities should spend their time and treasure keeping the meters working, “not squeez[ing] a double penalty out of cash-strapped citizens.”

(The bill has been passed by the Assembly and state Senate and sent to the governor.)

Did Mike Gatto ever get ticketed for parking at a broken meter? Was that the spark to the legislative fuse? I hope that’s true too.

I’ve parked at a meter, put in my money, found it broken and dutifully called the city to report it. What did the dame at the other end of the phone say to my good-deed-doing? “Move your car to another meter.” No refund, no credit, no thanks.

Although the city says its new generation of card-or-coin meters have been virtually trouble-free, about one in 10 of the old-style coin meters were broken at any given time. Many were vandalized, although less picturesquely than in “Cool Hand Luke.” The city, like the Napoleonic Code, assumes that we are all vandals, jamming the meters to save ourselves six bits. Thus, we cannot benefit from our crime by parking free at a broken meter.

Why did it take an assemblyman to try to fix this? Why didn’t some City Council member introduce a piece of city legislation to do this?

[Updated, 3:40 p.m. July 8: Newly elected Councilman Mike Bonin, who leads the council’s Transportation Committee, offered a motion July 2 to rescind the penalty for parking at an inoperable meter.]

Follow the money; follow the coins. I bet you a roll of quarters that the city does not use that $73 fine to fix the parking meters. I bet you that the city puts that $73 fine into the general fund and goes merrily along, congratulating itself on what a crafty little cash cow it’s milking. Broken meters may very well make more money than working ones; how’s that for a slick deal?

Of course people can cheat the parking rules -- does that give the city permission to out-cheat them? Enforce fair rules fairly and people won’t have grounds to complain when they get dinged for breaking them.

The new meters that accept coins or credit cards are crowding out the coin-only meters. There are nearly 40,000 of them, and fewer than a dozen are broken at any one time. If this is not a problem that will fix itself, then maybe Gatto’s bill will.

The city could do us all a bigger favor by going after the abuse of handicapped parking placards. People use fake ones, or they abuse the ones issued to their disabled relatives. You’ve seen these drivers at the grocery store or the mall. I have. A car wheels into a handicapped spot and two nimble young folk leap out and saunter off.

That’s not how it works. The handicapped person has to be in the car for the placard to apply. The city creates a scofflaw culture when it doesn’t bother to bust these crooks. On some streets in downtown L.A., every single car parked at a meter has a handicapped placard.

Sic the parking enforcement team on a few blocks of the city at a time, catch the creeps in the act and bust them big-time: Take away the placards, tow the car, fine them the same three figures that the able-bodied pay for parking in handicapped spots and note it on the cars’ records. The cheats undermine the entire handicapped parking program.

Enough L.A.-bashing. Let’s switch to Santa Monica, where the city of kumbaya sentiment has re-engineered its parking meters so that if you drive away with any time left on the meter, it’s wiped out.

There’s little enough fellow-feeling around here as it is. Finding a few cents’ worth of time left on the parking meter -- or the benevolent sentiment of leaving it for a comrade-in-traffic -- is one of the few civic sharing moments we have.

Los Angeles council member Tom LaBonge has looked warily to the west and says L.A. had better not follow Santa Monica’s suit.

A few free meter moments add “a certain joy in life in the city of Los Angeles,” he said. “I know they have it in their playbooks, and I don’t want them to call that play.”

And don’t even think of committing the random act of kindness of feeding someone’s expired meter. You can get arrested for that. Nice.

[For the Record, 3:40 p.m. July 8: The original version of this post stated that one in 10 parking meters in the city were broken. The latest report from the city’s Department of Transportation states that only 6 of the 37,000 card-or-coin meters now in service have been found inoperable since Jan. 13, for a total of 12.5 hours of down time. That statistic covers only meters that wouldn’t accept both coins and cards; no statistics were available yet for meters that would accept one but not the other.]


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