19 January 2021
One of the many inefficiencies of HK's road transport policies is that the price you pay (if you pay) for metered parking on a public road in HK has not changed since 1994, back when Bill Clinton was 2 years into his first presidency and the HK taxi flag fall was HK$11.50 (now $24). Metered parking is never more than HK$2 per 15 minutes (less in some spots), which is almost always a huge discount to the commercial parking spaces nearby. It's even cheaper if you don't pay or overstay, which is not an option in commercial car parks. Labour costs of enforcement are too high to provide a meaningful deterrent. So the spaces are often full, and in some areas, gangs running "valet parking" operations tend to monopolise them to profit from the under-pricing.
Yesterday, the Government launched its latest so-called "smart mobility" parking meters. They have radar to detect whether a space is occupied, but out of misplaced privacy concerns, they don't record the plate numbers of vehicles, so there's no automatic charging or fining for owners of vehicles who don't pay or overstay. It requires old-fashioned legwork to send a cop or traffic warden to record the plate number and issue a ticket. At least the meters will tell the cops where to look, so the deterrent may become more efficient.
Users will still need to decide in advance how much parking time to buy, and fiddle with QR codes or card payments to start the meter. There's a new smartphone app which allows you to remotely extend the parking time, but because of the under-pricing, there is a policy that you can only remotely renew the spot once - for example, 2 hours plus another 2 hours. Then you presumably have to come back and use a different payment method or move to another space. That's what happens with an under-priced resource - you have to ration it. As the web site states:
"To prevent motorists from continuously purchasing additional parking time remotely via mobile phones with a view to occupying the parking spaces for a prolonged period, HKeMeter will restrict the validity period of each connection and the connection will become invalid upon the expiry of effective parking time of the parking meter concerned."
So, not that smart.
A better way: a Park-and-Go scheme
A proper solution would work as follows:
- If an owner wishes to use parking meters, then she must place a deposit in a virtual bank account designated by the Government for that vehicle and printed on the annual licence document, or alternatively, link the account to a credit card, debit card or autopay.
- To avoid using hard-to-remember bank account numbers, each account would also have a dedicated email address using the vehicle registration number, for example, "AB1234@parking.gov.hk". Money can be instantly sent to an email address using the Faster Payment System (FPS) from any other bank account or payment app in HK.
- The vehicle drives up to the meter, its plate is read by cameras in the meter, and charging begins, debiting the vehicle's account automatically.
- When the vehicle leaves, the meter sees the vacancy and charging ends.
- If the vehicle parks without adequate balance in its account, then the owner is notified of a fine charged to the account, which must be paid before the annual licence is renewed or the ownership is transferred. Unpaid fines would increase the longer they are unpaid, and beyond a certain negative balance (say, $1,000), the meter would alert enforcers to tow and impound the vehicle until payment is made (this could be outsourced).
- The parking fees should be set at commercial levels, discovered by market forces (supply and demand) for each area and time-of-day/ day-of-week - and owners can park as long as they wish.
- When the vehicle is deregistered, any remaining deposit is refunded.
Simple, eh? This solution has the following benefits:
- No need to decide in advance how much parking time you need. Just park and go.
- No need for an app to start the meter or "extend" the time - although a simple app or web site could tell you your account balance, parking usage and allow top-ups.
- No police work is needed to visit parking spaces and issue tickets.
Regarding the purported privacy concerns - get real - any vehicle on the roads can already be tracked at multiple waypoints, and most payment methods on the new meters also require using identifiable payment methods. The only possible exception is the Octopus card, if it is one which is not linked to a bank account and doesn't have a pattern of usage that identifies you elsewhere (for example, CCTV and facial recognition on public transport). Commercial car parks record number plates routinely, so why not parking meters?
What the Government has done is to sacrifice all of the above benefits in exchange for having a pseudo-anonymous, under-priced parking meter system. If you don't want your vehicle to be identified, then don't use a parking meter - it's not a human right.
HK, Asia's Smart City?
The "new" HK meters are supplied and operated under a HK$682m 11-year contract awarded in 2019 to a joint venture between HKT Limited (HKT, 6823) and Flowbird. HKT is a subsidiary of PCCW Ltd (0008), which is 31% controlled by Richard Li Tzar Kai, son of Li Ka Shing. So HK is probably stuck with the not-so-smart meters until 2030.
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