It’s All the Pilgrims’ Fault
May, 2010The boss slipped me an advanced copy of Peter Guest’s column this month, and I see that he is commenting on the presentation by Dennis Cunning at the recent PIE and tossing in a few limey remarks about the use of “bits of paper, stickers on tickets” in the running of parking facilities here in the U.S.
I’ll take a moment and review the issue in some slight detail.
The concept of validating parking goes back as far as the arrival of the Mayflower from England in 1620. When the captain pulled in at Plymouth Rock, the locals told him there would be a slight charge to park his boat. Of course, the folks who had barely survived the crossing thought this was a slight overreach and decided to move on down the coast rather than pay the fee.
Then a local buckskin clad entrepreneur jumped into the fray and mentioned that if the so-called Pilgrims would be so kind as to use his catering company that fall for any upcoming celebrations, he would be happy to cover the cost of their parking. And a new concept was born.
A few years earlier, Sir Francis Drake had sailed the Golden Hind into San Francisco Bay and was met by locals who, to this day, charge heavy fees for leaving your mode of transportation in their care.
It was only after one of the locals, who sensed Drake and his crew just might fit in well with some of the local population, took Frank aside and noted that he would be happy to cover the parking charge if the knight and his lads would drop by his establishment on the Embarcadero and hoist a few. They could pick up a document on their way out that was worth one year of docking fees at Pier 1.
The concept of “bits of paper” continues to this day.
I point out to Peter that the English were deeply involved in both of these transactions, and that if anyone is to blame, they are, not we Yanks.
Being a people who like to follow our “free” spirit, we rebel at anything that smacks of overcharging. In fact, parking nearly became protected in some amendment to the Constitution when James Madison complained to Thomas Jefferson that if there was to be a “bill of rights,” then one of them had to be that horses and carriages could be put wherever one wanted.
Jefferson responded that in a free society, it worked both ways, so if I owned property, I had every right to charge you to leave your nag, just as you had every right to leave it somewhere else. However, if a third party, perhaps the wench that Ben Franklin was telling them about that morning at the local beer hall, wanted to pay that fee for you, there was nothing wrong with that, either.
So, the spirit brought forth by Squanto’s brother-in-law in 1620 – he got the referral – held strong more than a century and a half later, and now we proudly validate parking throughout the land.
One of the problems that European parking equipment had when they came to the U.S. was that they had no validation facility. The concept was “foreign,” I say, without even wagging my tail. Typically in Europe, if one wanted to help with parking charges, the merchant would just give the parker a discount of a couple of francs, pence or marks, and that was it. No need to involve the parking facility at all. This omission was immediately corrected.
Here in the Colonies, we looked at it differently. In an effort to provide service and to entice folks to park in one place and not another, deals were cut and merchants were enticed with discounts and other tokens of good will to give out coupons to their customers that offered lower parking rates (or even no rates) at certain parking locations. Then, after a few days of noticing that people will react favorably to “discount” and “free,” validation of parking became a way of life.
Of course, the parker paid for the parking, but just in a different way. If Neiman Marcus validated parking and Costco did not, one might assume that when you paid 10 times the amount for the same TV at NM than you did at Costco, somewhere in there might possibly be the cost of a $15 parking fee. But as you well know, folks don’t care much about that as long as it appears to be cheap.
Americans are nothing if not clever. There had to be a way to offer this validation ensuring that the validating party (Franklin’s wench or Squanto’s wife’s errant brother) had a way to conveniently mark the parking document and, more important, a way to track the fees so the parking facility owner could get reimbursed. Thus, validation stamps were born.
As with any other item of value, they can be lost, stolen, overused and, yes, people even try to make a quick buck or two on the side. Validation stickers became more difficult to duplicate; they were numbered, and even slit so they couldn’t be reused. Mechanical validators came on the scene, and soon online devices that tracked each validation back to its origin were popping up in shopping centers and lawyers’ offices across the fruited plain.
The problem, Peter, is one of scale. There are more parking facilities in New York City than in all of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and if you do a quick count, you could probably add England (less London) to that number. That means that “upgrading” takes time and a lot of money. But technology is on the way, and my guess is that your fumbling American cousins will have it under control before you can say “boot” or “windscreen” or “car park” or “motorway” or “mobile phone.”