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Don’t Let Poor Drivers Die in the Name of Equity

A word from our CEO, Bob Youakim:

COVID-19 has changed the world. And in this new world, cities can’t afford to reopen parking meters. If they do, the most vulnerable citizens in our communities risk exposure to COVID-19.

Passporters left our office six weeks ago, and we haven’t been back. In that time, the municipal parking market experienced 90% revenue losses and city transportation systems ground to a halt. The disruption is unprecedented.

As cities and states begin the process of reopening, they will meet a new set of challenges and priorities. Reorienting their operations to protect public health and safety is the most important of these new priorities. Every decision must be made through this lens to safely reopen and avoid a second wave of COVID-19 cases. This will require cities to make difficult tradeoffs. For municipal parking teams, these tradeoffs revolve around the role of parking hardware.

Many drivers still choose to pay for parking through physical meters, and each of these drivers touches a meter each time they pay for parking. This has caused high levels of contamination on parking meters. Forty percent of parking meters pose high risk for illness transmission. In the midst of a public health crisis caused by a highly contagious virus, this risk matters more than ever.

Redefining Equity in a Pandemic

Cities recognize that a shift to 100% contactless payments would reduce the risk of community spread of COVID-19. But parking meters are more than an option for most cities; they’re the only option for unbanked drivers. This means that any conversation about parking meters begins and ends with one critical concept: equity.

Equity requires that government services be administered fairly and impartially. Neither disability nor socioeconomic status should exclude a person from accessing public systems. This principle led cities to provide cash payment options to ensure that unbanked drivers have access to street parking.

But the world has changed. Equity equals safety now. Forcing unbanked drivers to use parking meters could expose them to COVID-19. Forcing city employees to collect and handle cash from parking meters or perform maintenance could expose them to COVID-19. No sensible definition of equity can allow that during a pandemic.

Finding an Equitable Solution

Cities need to close parking meters until community spread of COVID-19 has ended or vaccination has been introduced. This interim solution allows cities to safely reopen their parking system. It is the only responsible choice to protect their communities.

Cities also need to adjust their parking policies to ensure that this change doesn’t disadvantage unbanked drivers. If cities can’t provide a safe payment method, they must waive non-payment penalties and fines for these drivers. Equity demands safe access, even if that access is free for some drivers until a safe option is available.

Financial Considerations

Eliminating penalties for cash users will marginally reduce on-street parking revenue. But the costs of keeping meters open are much higher for both cities and drivers.

Given the devastating revenue losses from the last six weeks, another lockdown could push cities into bankruptcy as some will be at risk of defaulting or triggering covenants on their municipal bonds. Keeping parking meters open increases risk of viral spread, which increases the risk of a second wave of infection. A second wave risks a second lockdown. To preserve their financial solvency, cities need to mitigate this risk at all costs.

The lost revenue is also inconsequential when compared to drivers’ potential healthcare costs. While a city might forego a $5 fee due to this policy, paying that fee could cost a driver thousands of dollars if they became infected with COVID-19. Since unbanked drivers are a financially vulnerable population, these costs could be devastating. The marginal foregone revenue will be a rounding error for city governments.

Given the costs to cities and their citizens if we experience a second wave of COVID-19, the return on this investment more than justifies its cost.

Return to Normal

Like the small business owners that have closed their doors to flatten the curve, cities have a crucial role to play in protecting public safety. While it’s not a perfect solution, that role requires them to close their parking meters until community spread of COVID-19 is over.

This crisis won’t last forever, though. The need to close parking meters won’t either. But as an industry, we need to innovate to create technology that promotes both safety and equity. That’s how we can build more livable, equitable, and resilient communities. That’s our mission at Passport and the goal that we work toward every day.