These are heady days for the parking enforcement folks at UC Riverside.
The previous school year was a banner season for those young magistrates in tight shorts. Between September 2005 and June 2006, they and their allies in the Riverside Police Department scribbled out some 32,000 on-campus parking citations. That’s a particularly impressive figure given that the school has a population of only 17,000 students—or one student for every 1.9 tickets issued last year.
And it gets even headier. Over the winter break, while the rest of us were loafing about, UCR was busily putting the finishing touches on a major overhaul of its metered parking system. The most significant change was immediately apparent when students returned for their spring classes—the maximum time they could park in any of the school’s 220 pay stalls had been cut in half, from four hours to two.
According to UCR spokesman Ricardo Duran, the change was necessary to maintain uniformity. Previously, some of the stalls had a four-hour maximum and others had two, and that was just enough variance to confuse the MITS (Magistrates in Tight Shorts).
“This way, you don’t have to figure out that this particular space is for this amount of time, and that space is for that amount of time,” Duran says. “Parking enforcement becomes less complex.”
Less complex for parking enforcement, perhaps, but not for students—particularly on days when limited parking forces them to park on one side of campus when their classes are on the other. (The average UCR lab class is, after all, two-and-a-half hours long, and UCR is, after all, spread out across 1,200 rolling acres.) Just try making that walk in less than 30 minutes. I tried one recent cold and windy day, and I’m here to tell you that a) it’s not possible, and b) it’s no fun working up a full-body sweat on a cold and windy day.
The new system is apparently proving a boon to the telecommunications industry, as class-bound students are forced to use their cell phones to implore friends to feed the meter. Gary, a 21-year-old engineering student who refused to give his last name for fear of—I don’t know, vengeful MITS or something—says he and a buddy have worked out an elaborate system in which they’ll text-message each other the locations of their cars.
“I’ll get a message saying ‘Eng, 13, 10,’ meaning my friend is in the space numbered 13 in the parking lot by the Engineering building, and he has 10 minutes left before getting a ticket,” he says. “If I’m nearby, I’ll text back, ‘OK.’ If not, I’ll text, ‘UR F’ED.”
A campus-issued parking citation is typically for $25.
The changes to UCR’s parking system may also prove beneficial to another American institution—the credit card industry. None of the school’s six new “meter kiosks” (students park in numbered stalls and pay at a centralized machine) take hard currency. Only credit or debit cards are allowed, providing students with yet another compelling reason to rack up debt.
“The reason we’re moving away from cash is that a lot of people were asking for it,” says spokesman Duran. “When you think of our rate structure, you needed 16 quarters for two hours, or 32 quarters for four. That’s a lot of change. People find it more convenient to use their credit card.”
I didn’t point out to Duran that the old meter kiosks also took one- and five-dollar bills, but his comment inspired me to do a little math of my own. Assuming that the average UCR student spends six hours a day, five days a week attending classes, that’s $60 a week in meter fees. Since UCR’s school year is 30 weeks long (not counting summer session), that’s $1,800 (much more for those who occasionally find themselves, like Gary’s friend, F’ED by the MITS) applied directly to the student’s debt load. For one school year.
If $1,800 doesn’t strike you as a lot of money, consider that the average undergraduate already carries $2,327 in credit card debt, according to Nellie Mae, the nation’s largest provider of student loans. A student making minimum payments on only a $1,000 credit card bill at 18-percent interest will spend the next 12 years paying off that debt.
But all that’s a small price to pay for providing UCR’s parking enforcement staff with job security. Given the reduced meter times and the fact that some 22 percent of undergrads don’t have credit cards, the number of parking tickets issued at the school will almost certainly skyrocket.
A more cynical journalist might suggest that an anticipated leap in ticket revenue was the reason for the parking changes all along—but not me.