Sunday, November 8, 2009

New Parking Meter Failed? Good Luck Getting A Refund

If one of Oakland's new parking meters steals your cash, you'd better be prepared to litigate to get your money back.

A couple weeks back, I dutifully put my money into the meter and pressed the button to receive a receipt. The meter made some clicking sounds, but nothing came out.

I pushed the cancel button in an effort to get my money back, but it was too late. The meter wrongly believed it had dispensed a ticket.

My immediate solution was to go down the street and use another meter. That one worked, but I had now spent eight dollars for my two hours of parking.

I returned to the first meter. There's a phone number printed on them in case there are problems. I called the number from my cellphone and left my information on the voice mail system that responded.

A week later, I had heard nothing, so I called again, and again. In total I left four messages. I then tried calling the main switchboard to try and get through to whomever is responsible for broken meters. I made some progress, but Oakland's bureaucracy quickly used up the time I was willing to spend on such a minor amount of money.

Four dollars may not sound like much, but this situation is reminiscent of the property-tax issue I blogged about several weeks back. Essentially, the city insists year after year on illegally charging me for Measure Y on a vacant lot.

On Measure Y, at least the city responds to phone calls, but they make it as difficult as they can to get a refund -- requiring taxpayers to mail a signed form every year. They then require you to be available for the city to inspect the lot to make sure it's vacant. Don't they keep records of these kinds of things?

I know I shouldn't be surprised. Oakland's government is clearly set up as a mechanism to extract as much money as possible from taxpayers and funnel it to the politically connected. No one seriously argues that Oakland's government is not corrupt.

As with most of Oakland's civic services, this kind of behavior simply discourages people from having anything to do with the city. It's just like the schools, the roads, the parks and everything else a reasonable family could care about. The best strategy is to avoid Oakland altogether: use private schools, bike in Piedmont and visit parks east of the tunnel.

I also think these new meters are an idiotic "innovation." I have no problem with paying for parking. In fact, I support meters as they prevent all the spots from being taken -- ignoring for the moment the fact that Oakland's thousands of disabled-placard fraudsters ruin even this objective.

As an Oakland resident, I'd be much more interested in some sort of device like the one I use when I cross the Bay Bridge. I could simply attach it to my windshield and push a button on it each time I want to consume 15 minutes of parking. Then it would count down just like an ordinary meter.

I could charge it up online, and meter readers could use some sort of electronic device to sync it up whenever they come by my car. This would also ensure that the device hasn't been hacked.

For that matter, such a device could be used region-wide. It could replace the rolls of quarters I still use in parts of the East Bay and the tag I have hanging from my rear-view mirror for Bart.

Of course, we all know the sad history of such types of systems. TransLink serves as a warning to anyone considering something similar.

And, opponents would counter, how would those visiting from out of town park? This is exactly the same argument that has kept toll-takers standing at most of the lanes on the area's bridges, making traffic conditions worse and decreasing area drivers' incentive to get FasTrak.

In truth, if one implemented a region-wide system, such a concern would be minimized, and all a driver would need to do is purchase some sort of pre-paid card prior to parking in the Bay Area. Such a card could even be printed off the Internet, exactly like a Southwest boarding pass.

There are actually two issues standing in the way of this kind of innovation. The first is corruption/stupidity -- the city government only wants to buy products which require zero creativity and that provide as much as a kickback as possible.

The other issue is one common to government at all levels: fear. The politician's primary goal is to continue to be reelected. As such, it makes no sense to support an innovative solution that could prove game-changing. It's far better to focus on the incremental and the safe.

And that's what we get in Oakland -- the safest possible solution.

Except when it comes to public safety, of course. Be realistic!


  1. I had a similar experience with the new parking meters in Oakland. After several voicemail messages were ignored, it took me less time to devise a means for parking for free without utilizing the new parking meters. Using this free public parking method I devised would result in a financial loss for the city of Oakland, but I wouldn't be against its use when the city (and/or the contractor providing such lousy service) has taken more from the parking consumer than is legally due.

    Bottom line:
    The whole City of Oakland Public Parking operation is seriously in need of an unbiased external audit. If done correctly, I guarantee an audit failure.

  2. How would one go about calling effectively for an audit?

    I have some absolute horror stories about the Oakland Parking Dept.hours spent and hundreds of dollars gone.