When computer programmers dabble in economics: Paying parking tickets


One of my colleagues has a degree in economics, and sometimes it manifests itself in strange ways.

My colleague moved to a new apartment building and rented a parking space in the building's garage. After a month of noticing that there was usually an empty parking space or two on the street, my colleague made the economic calculation that the risk of not finding a parking space nearby was outweighed by the savings of not paying for a monthly parking space.

After a few more months, my colleague started experimenting with the alternate side of the street parking rules and noticed that they tended not to be enforced early in the morning. Once again, after some mental calculations, the extra few hours of sleep were deemed worth the additional cost of the occasional parking ticket.

The saga continues. My colleague then determined that the city doesn't really care that much if you don't pay your parking ticket. (I personally find this hard to believe, but that's how my colleague described it, so there you have it.) The unpaid tickets piled up.

And then something happened to put an end to this little scheme: The prospect of home ownership. My friend planned to move out of the apartment building and buy a house in a different part of the city.

While the city may not care about unpaid parking tickets, banks definitely do, and it was adversely affecting the interest rates on the home loan offers. My colleague sat down and did the math and calculated that the time-discounted savings over the life of the loan outweighed the present cost of paying off all the parking tickets.

Off to the parking ticket payment office we go. "Hi. I'd like to pay my parking tickets." The person at the desk took down the pertinent information and went to the computer to print out the tickets so they could be paid. This was back in the days of dot matrix printers and tractor-feed paper, so the printer buzzed noisily and could be heard throughout the room.

The tickets printed.

And printed.

And printed.

People in the office started to take notice, wandered over to the printer to see what was going on, and then, once they realized what was happening, began to clap and cheer. Handing over the check to pay for the tickets earned my colleague a standing ovation.

(By the way, today is a parking holiday in Seattle.)

[Note: An incomplete version of this article was mistakenly published a day early. It has been updated to the finished version and moved to its correct publication date.]

Comments (40)
  1. xix says:

    A recycled post from yesterday?  Even the previous comments have been purged.

    I wonder how many tickets that amount of printing represented, and how much money was involved.

    [Please read the “Update” section again. I removed the old comments because they were in response to an incomplete article. -Raymond]
  2. Rick Schaut says:

    So, has your colleague recomputed his marginal propensity to save?

  3. waleri says:

    If the city doesn’t care about the parking tickets, why should the banks do?

    [If the high school doesn’t care about your disciplinary record, why should the colleges? -Raymond]
  4. dbt says:

    I wonder if the city not caring bit is still true.  In Chicago, this behavior would result in your car being disabled http://cache.viewimages.com/xc/1198577.jpg?v=1&c=ViewImages&k=2&d=17A4AD9FDB9CF1939057D9939C83F1066A9486077FE75C8B5A5397277B4DC33E and then in two weeks, impounded.

  5. J says:

    I discovered at my university that to minimize your parking costs for a year you could park in the rear of the worst (furthest) lot all the way until first-semester finals, and then buy a parking pass right before finals week.  You’d get just about one semester free parking.  If you didn’t pay for finals week, it didn’t matter where you parked, you’d get a ticket every day.  If you really didn’t want to pay, you could park off campus at certain nearby businesses that didn’t seem to mind you using their lot, but you had to walk a lot farther (the furthest lot was already a 15-minute walk if you didn’t take the shuttle).  I wasn’t that stingy but I knew people who were.

    And of course you had to pay the tickets before they’d let you register for classes for the next semester.

  6. BryanK says:

    waleri: People were asking that same question in some of the earlier (deleted) comments, too.

    But just on the off chance that Raymond’s response doesn’t make this obvious, the fact that you don’t pay parking tickets means that you don’t pay back some kinds of debt (because a parking ticket is a debt that you owe, once you get it).  The organization giving the loan (i.e the bank) says "in aggregate, people that don’t pay back some types of debt are at a higher risk of not paying back other types of debt — and specifically, that includes the types of debt that we’re going to create here by lending them money for their house".

    So the banks classify anyone with unpaid tickets as higher-risk debtors, and raise their interest rates accordingly.

  7. Javier says:

    If the city doesn’t care about the parking tickets, why should the banks do?

    I wouldn’t be suprised if the banks studied this and found some correlation between having unpaid tickets and late payment of loans.

  8. I actually knew someone in university with a very similar story. She realized that she wasn’t going to "make it" so for her last semester she pretty much parked wherever she wanted, at least anywhere she wouldn’t get towed. It was pretty amazing. Best parking you can imagine. She would park in front of any building on campus.

    Of course as you can imagine she got an insane number of tickets. So many that she couldn’t even put them in her glove compartment near the end. It was very funny.

    When I asked her why, she said she’d never have to repay them. They weren’t part of the city. That’s fine and all, but one thing she didn’t realize, and which we didn’t think about at the time, was that if she ever needed her transcripts, or any other official piece of paper from the university, she would need to pay ALL her parking tickets first!

    Although she wasn’t planning on attending higher education again, if she ever needed an official document, even just proof of her attendance, that could be very expensive! Enough to draw up another crowd :)

  9. reader says:

    I’m actually slightly surprised the banks would find out about your unpaid parking tickets, unless of course the incident got reported to the credit bureaus, which I thought typically happens when someone starts using a collection agency.  If that’s the case then the city clearly cared.

  10. John says:

    Well, maybe the city doesn’t care and just logs your name in some database.  Then when you try to get a loan the bank checks with the city if you have any outstanding payments.

  11. DriverDude says:

    Maybe the city also has an economist on its staff. The city got paid without resorting to a collection agency or taking him to court (lawyers are expensive). Heck, your colleague even went to their office to pay the tickets.

    Nothing personal, just economics.

  12. Will says:

    My wife had a glove compartment full, literally crammed full, of parking tickets when we got married.  I didn’t know this because she’d never mentioned it and we’d always used my, much nicer, car.  I found this out shortly after the city changed their procedures.

    The parking authority initiated an amnesty program of sorts, you see.  If you paid ALL of your outstanding tickets by a certain date then all associated late fees and fines were forgiven.  If you did’t pay ALL these then not only did the fees and fines stand, but additional newly approved fines were added, AND your car was subject to towing and associated storage fees, AND you could eventually receive a summons to court.

    When I found this out was when my wife received notice of the change along with a bill for over $4700 in parking tickets she’d been given over the prior SIX years.   With the additional fees and fines, should she not pay this bill, the total ballooned to over $8,000.  It was not a good day in our house because she’d recently quit her job for some "me" (as in her) time.  It was a much worse day a few months later when her car was towed for non-payment and the bill jumped to $8400.  

    She’d promised to pay the bill herself because she had more than enough money saved and she didn’t want me to have to deal with her problem.  She didn’t pay though because she had a hard time parting with the money.

    Anyway, after many tears on her part, and much frustration on mine, I set a plan in motion.  I had her write a check for the original amount and date it at a couple days after she recieved the original notice. I enclosed the check and notice in an improperly addressed envelope – correct address except for a wrong zip code.  Then I faked a dated postmark on the stamp, a couple mail sorting barcodes (one marked through), and a couple yellow stickers with corrected addresses on them.  Next I dampened a corner, placed it on the floor, stepped on it a couple times, and rubbed some dust on it.  Finally, the next morning, I dropped it on the floor in a rear hallway of the municipal building.

    Later that day my wife recieved a call from the parking authority explaining that they’d just received the check she’d written a few months ago that had apparently been misdirected in the mail.  She explained that she was so relieved to hear that because she was sure she’d paid it, but that her car had just been towed the day before.  They checked and confirmed that, verified that her check was still covered, and had her balance zeroed and her vehicle in our driveway before the day was out.

    Whether I really fooled them or whether they figured that was such an interesting effort I’ll never know.  It saved us almost $4000 though… and my wife hasn’t recieved a parking ticket since.

  13. Will says:

    Ummm, she hasn’t recieved one that I know of… but I really believe her when she says none.

    Yes, I know that fakery probably does carry some theoretical federal charge for faking a postmark but realistically I didn’t use USPS, nor did I cheat the USPS out of any income, in fact I bought but didn’t use a stamp so I wasn’t too concerned.

  14. Cooney says:

    > I had her write a check for the original amount and date it at a couple days after she recieved the original notice. I enclosed the check and notice in an improperly addressed envelope – correct address except for a wrong zip code.  Then I faked a dated postmark on the stamp, a couple mail sorting barcodes (one marked through), and a couple yellow stickers with corrected addresses on them.  Next I dampened a corner, placed it on the floor, stepped on it a couple times, and rubbed some dust on it.  Finally, the next morning, I dropped it on the floor in a rear hallway of the municipal building. <<

    Wow, forgerific!

  15. John says:

    Not paying fees is one thing; forging documents (especially when government is involved) is something else.  You should have made her pay the full amount (including late fees).

  16. Daev says:

    This is a linguistically interesting post, Raymond.  You’ve managed to tell an entire story about "your colleague" without using any third-person pronouns at all.  It’s a little awkward in places but still very readable, and we reach the end of the story without knowing the gender of the main character.  Was this deliberate, and can you say why you chose it?

  17. Cooney says:

    You’ve managed to tell an entire story about "your colleague" without using any third-person pronouns at all.

    ‘My colleague" is a third party pronoun. Just not one of the standard ones. Anyway, I’m guessing it’s a guy – math-based trickery sounds distinctly male.

  18. Maurits says:

    I can see how paying the tickets would help your colleague’s credit score, by reducing his outstanding debt.  But isn’t there also long-term damage to his credit score by having paid the tickets late?

  19. Nick says:

    Will:

    What are we supposed to take from your story? Forging documents, lying, and essentially stealing from the city aren’t things one would normally be proud of.  In any case it sounds like your wife needed a lesson in Reality.  Taking personal responsibility and paying the fines (even if it means no new shoes for a while) would have done her some good.

    Raymond’s story was funny and applicable. Your story is enough to land you a felony.  See the difference?

  20. Will says:

    Nick:

    It was simply a story.  Three words – get a life.  Two more – bite me you rediculous moron.  Oops that was five.  

  21. Marc K says:

    I’d say Will’s wife did get a lesson in reality.

  22. Name required says:

    She’ll get a lesson in reality when they put her husband away, anyway :)

    Nice story, anyway. Whether anything was forged I don’t know – the postmark… well, the letter didn’t go through the post so maybe not.

  23. asdf says:

    It is forgery, and I agree 100% with Nick.  Maybe your wife learned a lesson, but it looks like you could stand to learn a thing or two yourself.  Of course in the grand scheme of things this particular instance of fraud is not really that big of a deal, but it sets a dangerous precedent.

  24. JamesCurran says:

    I had a similar story.  I would park in a metered lot next to the train station.  $3/day for 12 hrs.  After pumping a roll & a  half of quarters every week for a couple months (and beginning the effects of carpal tunnel), I noticed one car that was still surrounded by snow, two weeks after the snow storm.  Clearly it had not been moved in all that time. So, clearly, the cops weren’t checking the meters. So I stopped paying. I disocovered I’d get a $12 ticket approx onces a month.  Since that was only the cost of 4 days parking, I could afford to get one ticket a week and still profit.

    Eventually, the town caught on to this, and started chaning their policies.  The fine went up, first to $20 then $25, while monitoring increased.  When I got two $25 tickets in one week, I decided that it didn’t pay any more, and started parking on the street a couple blocks from the station.  

  25. Sarah Nightingale says:

    Some years ago I was helping to run an orphanage and one of the children desperately needed an operation. Unfortunately the surgery cost more than $8000.

    By a stroke of luck the city began a charity effort in which fees collected from unpaid parking tickets would be donated to worthy causes. As you might imagine there was a long list of applicants, and so in the end each qualified applicant was assigned a single case, and the amount that person paid was what was donated. Fortunately, the case we drew owed approximately $8,400, enough to cover the cost of the surgery!

    Or so we thought. It turned out that that person had mailed in the fees earlier, but they had been lost in the mail. Because of the reduced fine we received only $4,700. Though enough to provide some care, it was not enough to pay for the operation, and eventually the child was lost. How unfortunate that the parking tickets turned out to have been paid earlier.

  26. MikeH says:

    It’s not a strange manifestation at all if you end up with a degree in economics. Anytime someone mentions a cost you start computing marginal costs in attempt to find pareto efficiency. Really, it’s a curse.

    Did he take into account the risk free rate earned on unpaid ticket value that may have been applied to mortgage prepayment?

  27. Mark says:

    Until recently, there were no ticket barriers at the Cambrige or London Kings Cross stations.  A student return ticket costs £17.15, and lasts a month.  This meant that you could buy a return from both ends, and travel free until a ticket inspector stamped your ticket.

    I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to work out the best strategy for any particular frequency of ticket inspection and trips.  The fine for having no ticket is £42.20.

  28. Mark says:

    One more piece of information you need – a single is £12.15.

  29. Richard C Haven says:

    How about: pay the parking tickets because it is part of the Social Contract and you are an adult living within the society.

  30. Keith says:

    > ‘My colleague” is a third party pronoun. Just not one of the standard ones.

    The Writing Centre at the University of Ottowa seems to disagree:

    http://www.arts.uottawa.ca/writcent/hypergrammar/pronouns.html

    “My colleague” is a noun phrase, not a pronoun.

    Raymond: clever avoidance of personal pronouns; were you intentionally obscuring the person’s identity for anonymity reasons, or to actually see how people would react to it?

    [It was an anonymity thing. I hope to be able to keep it up in the future. -Raymond]
  31. Cooney says:

    > Or so we thought. It turned out that that person had mailed in the fees earlier, but they had been lost in the mail. Because of the reduced fine we received only $4,700. Though enough to provide some care, it was not enough to pay for the operation, and eventually the child was lost. How unfortunate that the parking tickets turned out to have been paid earlier.

    Ooh, emotional manipulation – I feel so guilty…

    > “My colleague” is a noun phrase, not a pronoun.

    This sounds like one of those ‘distinction without a difference’ moments.

    [I can’t find a reasonably explanation of “my colleague” counts as a pronoun. It’s clearly a noun phrase. By your logic, “my dog” is a pronoun, too. -Raymond]
  32. Anonymous says:

    This sounds like one of those ‘distinction without a difference’ moments.

    You said Daev was wrong, claiming "my colleague" is a pronoun.  It’s not.

  33. Cooney says:

    > [I can’t find a reasonably explanation of “my colleague” counts as a pronoun. It’s clearly a noun phrase. By your logic, “my dog” is a pronoun, too. -Raymond]

    and you’d use it the same way, too. What can you talk about your dog doing that you can’t talk about ‘him’ doing? It’s just English – the rules are maleable.

    [On the other hand, it helps communication if you use a word the same way the rest of the world does. Most people do not consider “noun” and “pronoun” to be interchangeable. I guess you get to be the leader of the new Cooney School of grammar. -Raymond]
  34. Mr Cranky says:

    @Sarah Nightingale:  That was just so… beautiful.  I had tears in my eyes.

    Well, because I was laughing my ass off, but still…

  35. waleri says:

    [If the high school doesn’t care about your disciplinary record, why should the colleges? -Raymond]

    Well, they shouldn’t, at least in my opinion. Colleges should be concerned about my academic achievements. If I pass the admission test, why should they bother whether I was a bully in highschool? Should my behavior prove wrong by college standards, they are free to expel me at any time.

    Otherwise it sounds like "once bad – forever bad", not to mention things like "privacy"

  36. Anonymous says:

    waleri: so a job applicant who provides certificates needn’t supply references?

  37. Maurits says:

    > the rules are maleable.

    *rimshot*

  38. Stephen Jones says:

    —–"Or so we thought. It turned out that that person had mailed in the fees earlier, but they had been lost in the mail. Because of the reduced fine we received only $4,700. Though enough to provide some care, it was not enough to pay for the operation, and eventually the child was lost. How unfortunate that the parking tickets turned out to have been paid earlier."—–

    So there you are, Will. Your subterfuge has helped stave off overpopulation in the US, cut down on the price of welfare, and decreased global warming. I ask for an after-the-fact discount.

  39. Accross the ocean says:

    I’m not from USA, so I don’t know the institutions/jurisdictions involved, but some things aren’t clear to me:

    Who gave the colleague’s records to the bank?

    Isn’t that a serious violation of privacy?

    If the authorities give away such data easily, can I set up a bank for data mining / spamming purposes?

    Who (and how well) controls what data is given?

    [Search for “consumer reporting agency” to learn more. -Raymond]

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