Californians are, for the most part, car people. We may like public transit in theory, but in practice, we spend slightly more than two and a half weeks each year behind the wheel, commuting to and from work. In that time, people whom we rarely think of as people surround us. We talk about freeways full of cars, and grumble about how a Mercedes made us late for an appointment or how some Mustang cut us off, as if the cars drive themselves. But we’re also often reminded that cars do contain other people—when we’re looking for an open parking meter.

This happens more often than most people think. You see a car pull away from a spot, and you’re happy to discover 45 minutes left on the meter. Or you feel satisfaction when you spot a mom in a minivan full of kids take the spot you just left behind—one fewer thing for her to worry about. I’ve often pulled into an empty parking space and heard a driver a few spots away yell to me that he’s about to leave with 20 minutes left, and would I like his space? Such exchanges are examples of “paying it forward.” I get the extra time from the driver before me; maybe on the next trip, I’ll leave extra time for someone else.

Now San Francisco officials are considering a proposal to follow Santa Monica’s lead by installing “smart” parking meters to boost city revenue. Using ground-sensor technology, these solar-powered meters can tell when a parking spot is occupied; send text messages to notify drivers that their time is running out; prevent drivers from adding money over permitted time limits; change parking rates based on congestion; and—the main source of controversy—reset any remaining time when a car leaves the parking spot. In other words, the harried minivan mom will be out of luck.

Advocates praise smart meters for their efficiency, but opponents charge that if meters are smart enough to reset, they should also be able to refund your remaining money. And if they can’t (or won’t) refund, then they shouldn’t be able to reset. “I already paid for that spot,” the argument goes. “It’s not fair to get two ‘rents’ for the same time slot.”

Smart-meter proponents may be tempted to dismiss these criticisms as cities across the state, teetering on bankruptcy, scramble to find new sources of income. After all, people overpay for parking meters all the time. It’s surely less painful than, say, sales-tax increases or cuts to popular government services. Such objections sound, to them, like just another knee-jerk reaction to anything that could increase government revenue and get us out of this mess.

But what if there’s more to it than that? What if opposition to resetting meters reflects a community-oriented sense of identification with other drivers? In his seminal Bowling Alone, social scientist Robert Putnam drew a connection between declining civic engagement and a loss of what he called “social capital,” the various connections between community members. Putnam saw this loss exemplified in decreased involvement in bowling leagues. The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC), in its statewide Civic Health Indices, evaluates both “political civic engagement” (voting, registering to vote, contacting elected officials, attending local government meetings) and “social civic engagement” (eating meals with family, discussing politics, exchanging small favors with neighbors). The NCoC’s measurements include even more informal exchanges than those Putnam explored. Its survey results suggest that the little things—families’ eating meals at the same time; doing favors for neighbors; volunteering—go a long way. Not only do states and localities with higher levels of social engagement tend to have higher levels of political engagement, but socially connected communities are also better equipped to take on public problems. People engaged with their neighbors are more inclined to engage with strangers in a common cause.

This interplay between the social and political goes to the heart of what it means to live in a community. Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed that in America, ambitious undertakings were not left to a centralized government, as in France, or to the landed gentry, as in England, but were undertaken by citizen associations working to address community needs. Such association depends on citizens’ seeing one another, not as an abstract mass known as “the public,” but rather as a collection of distinct and diverse individuals, whose needs and desires may sometimes be in conflict, but will also frequently overlap, allowing them to work together.

California hasn’t measured up well when it comes to social or political civic engagement. In 2010, the state ranked 33rd nationally in voter turnout and 39th in volunteering. Only 13.8 percent of Californians said they exchanged favors with neighbors, and only 8.3 percent said they had worked with neighbors to improve their community—both below the national average.

All of this brings us back to the real problem with the “double rent” of smart parking meters. The issue is not that the City of San Francisco will get more, but that an unknown someone will end up with less. Unless we somehow reverse a century of urbanization—moving back to small towns where everyone knows everyone else—finding these points of connection, these interactions that facilitate empathy with fellow citizens, will continue to be invaluable.

Of course, smart parking meters may well offer genuine monetary benefits to local governments. And it may be that increasing revenue in these difficult fiscal times is worth the tradeoff. But let’s at least recognize that the tradeoff is real.


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