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‘Free’ Wi-Fi, Another Day in DC, Easier to Pay Than Fight?

John Van Horn


My experience is that when things are “free,” they don’t seem to work very well.

This is particularly true for “free” Wi-Fi. When you try to log on at airports or in coffee shops, there are issues. The signal is weak, or the 4,000 people trying to run on the system means the bandwidth shrinks and speeds slow to old dial-up modes.

When you pay for Wi-Fi, however, it seems to work better. Companies that are receiving the money want you to be happy, so they build their networks to fit the needs of the community. As the traffic increases, the network grows to fill the requirements.

An opinion forum blogger on WashingtonPost.com comments that many coffee shops in DC are limiting or doing away with free Wi-Fi because people are moving in and taking space from paying customers. They are sitting on sofas or at tables, maybe ordering one coffee, and spending hours writing the great American novel or surfing for great deals on Groupon.com. Sound familiar?

The blogger then noted that this situation is similar to another one:

In a way, free Wi-Fi is like free parking. Sometimes it makes sense for businesses, because it’s a means to get people in the door. Sometimes, if you don’t have Wi-Fi (or parking), some customers will go elsewhere.

But in a major city [such as DC], seats in coffee shops (and free parking spaces) are in short supply and high demand. Having a few seats (or parking spaces) that a small number of people hog all day long simply doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t matter if free Wi-Fi (or parking) is what people are used to. This is just the new reality.

 “Free” isn’t of course free. The cost of Wi-Fi is charged to all customers in the price of their grande latte, whether they use it or not. Having singles taking tables that could be used for couples makes the coffee house less attractive as a meeting place.

And as the blogger points out, in major cities, real estate is expensive, and the margins just aren’t there to cover the costs of allowing people to hang out, with their laptops taking space that could be used for more profitable activities.

The law of unintended consequences seems to be alive and well. Well-meaning “free” Wi-Fi can also mean abuse, and that can lead to problems.

 “The new reality?” I disagree with the blogger quoted above. This issue has always been the reality. It’s just that we are now becoming aware of the pitfalls that surround the word free.

    •••

Heh – seems the federal government has been subsidizing parking fees for its workers at the Department of Labor (DOL). Now they are considering removing the subsidy. How much? About $200 or so a month, according to a commentary at WashingtonExaminer.com. The average parking in the area is $225, Labor Department employees pay $35 a month. Are they hot or what?

I have no problem with employers subsidizing parking. It’s done all the time. The irony is that the Feds on the one hand are trying to get people to carpool and take public transportation and on the other are subsidizing their parking to the tune of $2,400 a year. I would say it makes no sense, but then mentioning “the government” and “sense” in the same sentence is an oxymoron.

A local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees union is threatening to file a complaint, possibly leading to a class-action lawsuit. The DOL is holding firm.

Here’s what I think is happening. The Labor Department is actually paying someone the $200 or so a month for the parking. If there are 750 parkers, that amounts to $1.8 million every year out of the department’s pocket.

I also wonder if the IRS knows about this subsidy, and if the DOL employees are paying taxes on the additional $2,400 a year they get in parking cost reduction.

The union appears to be demanding the continuation of a subsidy that others don’t get. The government is looking for ways to reduce expenses. The IRS isn’t following its own rules – one part of the government has a policy that flies in the face of another part of the government …

        Just another day in DC.

    •••

And we wonder why parking has such a bad reputation? Take Milwaukee, WI, for instance. Last year, the city voided more than 32,000 tickets that were improperly written, local NewsRadio WTMJ reported. Half of these were for failure to display a night parking permit, but the vehicles actually had valid permits and the city’s computers knew it.

City policy is to “write tickets first and then sort it out later.” One parking enforcement officer wrote more than 2,100 tickets last year that eventually were voided. That’s almost nine tickets a day. How was that to the benefit of anyone? Let’s see:

• The PEO wasted the time it took to write the ticket when she could have been writing tickets that were valid and actually ended in revenue collected.

• The city took an inordinate amount of time sorting out the problem, and staff were pressed into action to void the citations.

• And then there were the parkers, who had to deal with the city bureaucracy and in the end were pissed off.

Tell me where the win was here?

The number of times that parkers had to waste time proving they were innocent includes 7,991 tickets for an expired meter – where the meter was really paid.

Parking enforcement insists this is not their fault, however. Its chief, Thomas Sanders, blames a flaw inherent in the city’s new multi-space parking meters, the radio station reported:

        

There is a one-minute delay between when a parker pays at a multi-space meter and when parking checkers’ computers update with that information.

Now, in defense of multi-space meter manufacturers everywhere – flaw, what flaw? If the PEOs’ handhelds are updated within one minute of the person paying, I would suggest it’s a grand success.

So, the city is telling me that nearly 8,000 tickets are written in the one minute between the time someone puts money in the meter and the PEOs’ handheld computers are updated. Oh, please. I wish they were that efficient.

Here’s how the WTMJ report quoted one parker who fought a “bad” ticket in yet one more case “where the city writes a ticket and puts the burden on you to prove yourself innocent”:

To Darrin McCambridge, this [policy] makes the city sound irresponsible. He wonders if this “write ’em all” policy is just a way for the city to make more money.

 “It’s a win-win for them,” he said. “It’s a lose-lose for everybody else. Because at the end of the day, it can be easier to pay the ticket than fight it.”

Where do we find these people, working for the DMV?

       

John Van Horn is Editor of Parking Today. Contact him at jvh@parkingtoday.com.     

 

Article Abstract from July, 2012




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