About a month ago, I had an errand to run on Berkeley's Solano Avenue. I needed to go into the bank to get cash to pay our local after-school dog-walker. A row of spaces outside Andronico's, the grocery near the top of the avenue, was empty. Paying for parking here is a matter of going to a machine that serves the whole block and paying for the time you think you need. The machine dispenses a receipt that displays an expiration time. You put that on your dashboard as "proof of purchase" for the city's roving parking attendants, and then you go on your way.
I'm usually pretty good about taking care of this; I don't trust my luck in trying to beat a meter, usually, and I have an aversion to parking tickets. But for whatever reason, I walked into the bank, about 50 yards away, without paying for parking. There was no waiting at the ATM, and I was headed back out to the car no more than three minutes after I'd gotten out. At that point, I saw someone else buying a parking receipt and thought, "Oh, shit." As I approached the car, the parking attendant came around the rear of the car. She had already written the ticket. I said, "Is it too late?" and she said, "Yes." I told her I'd intended to pay, which was true enough in a general sense, but didn't change the fact I'd forgotten this time. I was not happy. She reached out to hand me the ticket, and I refused to take it. "Put it on the windshield," I told her. And she did. When she walked away (to ticket another car that had just parked), I got out and took the ticket. Forty-three bucks. Making allowances for the possibility I had been gone for five minutes instead of just three, that's $516 an hour. I've paid more; last fall, I paid about $60 for five minutes in an Oakland space that I didn't realize was timed parking, for a rate of $720 an hour. It's still galling. (And of course I managed to pay $30 extra this time by not paying the fine immediately.)
One thing I was surprised about in this case was the officer's arrival immediately after I had parked. I asked a friend whether the attendants lie in wait around that location (as opposed to circulating through the neighborhood, which in theory would give you a chance to get away with a three- or five-minute violation). She said they do. And not only that, one officer has drawn complaints for writing tickets while newly arrived drivers are in the process of purchasing their parking receipts.
Yes, I'm crying over spilt milk, and none of this comes as a surprise to anyone who lives in a big city. Financial times are tough for cities that are still expected to deliver services. Still, you can't help feeling a little shaken-down when a five-minute lapse of attention winds up costing you this much. Grace period, anyone?
San Francisco Chronicle: S.F. parking meter rates, fines among the priciest
San Francisco schedule of parking fines (you can get a $105 fine for removing parking control chalk marks)
Oakland's schedule of parking fines (note you can get a $45 ticket for leaving a key in the ignition)
City of Berkeley: Last year's proposed increases in parking fines (city manager recommended a $5 across-the-board increase, City Council adopted a $3 increase. One reason for the hike: the state Legislature, in perennially courageous pass-the-buck fashion, has passed a series of bills that skim ticket revenue from cities and counties for courthouse construction; the cities and counties in turn have been raising fines so that they can pay the new state levy).