Time is Relative, Except to Chicago Parking Meter Lease Critics

In a bizarre display of investigative journalism, the Chicago Sun-Times published a “gotcha” piece yesterday in which the reporters attempt to make headlines with a new smear against the $1.15 billion lease of the city’s parking meter system. Their crack reporting exposed the fact that…(gasp!)…the new pay-and-display parking meters show different times than people’s cell phones:

Chicago’s new pay-and-display parking meters have a problem.

They’re not all in synch, according to a spot check of about 50 of the new parking pay kiosks that found the time they show varies from machine to machine.

They should all show the same time. They didn’t. And that could cost you.

City officials and a spokeswoman for Chicago Parking Meters LLC, which the city hired to take over the meters in a megadeal in February, say no one’s being shorted on parking time.

Wait…stop. Faulty premise alert. They should all show the same time? This assumes that there’s some master clock somewhere that can send infallible, instantaneous information to thousands of electronic devices without fail. People may gotten too comfortable with the belief that because their cell phones typically pick up time signals from satellites, then this must be the “accurate” time. But in reality, as Time magazine helpfully reported just last month, the idea that cell phones get time right is false in the first place. Geez, the Time article is even titled, “Why Can’t My Clocks Keep Time Accurately?”

Try it yourself. Last night, I put my phone up against another cell phone, in the same house, from the same service provider, and the clocks hit the same time roughly 30 seconds apart. Apparently, the operators of the Chicago parking meter system tried the same thing on a slightly larger scale and got the same result:

Avis LaVelle, a spokeswoman for Chicago Parking Meters LLC, said time discrepancies are unavoidable, even though pay-and-display boxes are “synched up every night at midnight with the atomic clock.”

“Synchronization is not absolute, no matter what technology you’re using. I just came from a meeting with six people who have cell phones set by satellite. There were five different times among six people,” she said.

As if this story wasn’t absurd enough, the Sun-Times article goes on to show that the real “problem” here seems to be of a personal responsibility nature:

Parking recently in the 2500 block of North Lincoln, Barry Shuman said he glanced at his cell phone to note the time — 11:45 a.m. Then, he looked at his parking receipt.

“Ticket comes out: The ticket says 11:43,” said Shuman.

If he hadn’t noticed, he said he might have come back when he thought his time would be up according to his cell phone and gotten a ticket.

Shuman’s view? “You are getting short two [minutes].”

What?! He’s not getting shorted two minutes—he gets the full time he paid for—he just didn’t bother to check his phone and match it up to the meter receipt. If he buys two hours of meter time, he gets two hours of meter time, plain and simple. But if he expects the parking meter to hold his hand on the basics of personal time management beyond that, he’s got a lot of hard lessons to learn in life.

Under this logic, if your cell phone says you have two minutes left to board your flight and the airline’s clocks say its time to close the doors, is it the airline’s fault that you missed your flight? Are we that lazy these days that we elevate our personal cell phone clock display to “absolute time” status?

How about this—why don’t you look at your ticket and compare it to your cell phone to see what time you need to be back? Wouldn’t you do that at an airport? Wouldn’t you factor in a minute or two buffer time for a safe zone to be safe?

Here’s the reality: technology isn’t perfect, and both the city and concessionaire appear to have about as much handle on this time issue as you could have. The concessionaire syncs the parking meter clocks every night with a central server tied to an atomic clock. Enforcement personnel with the city also sync the clocks in their ticketing devices on a nightly basis. But both of those actions cannot overcome the fundamental reality that parking meters, cell phones, computer servers and all sorts of other technology still can’t keep 100% perfect time. This is due to a variety of causes—distance from cell towers, fluctuating bandwidth usage, vagaries in coverage and signal strength, inaccuracy at the server level, low batteries and a number of other little tech annoyances that keep us from perfection.

As silly as this non-issue is, it’s worth mentioning that the concessionaire has already jumped on top of it to add additional “buffer” time to compensate for the inherent whims of technology. As the Sun-Times reports today:

Over the last day, Chicago Parking Meters LLC has re-examined every one of its 2,200 pay-and-display boxes to make certain they are “rounding up to give consumers a full minute” when parking time is purchased.

Spokesperson Avis LaVelle said the company has also thrown in an “extra minute to compensate for time-keeping differences that may occur with customer cell phones or other hand-held devices.” […]

“It wasn’t demanded by anyone. It’s a customer service initiative and an effort to be responsive to issues as they arise,” said LaVelle, the former mayoral press secretary now serving as a spokesperson for Chicago Parking Meters.

LaVelle acknowledged that offering two minutes of free parking time would cost the company money. But, she said, “There is a recognition that there are inconsistencies in time-keeping technology, and this is an initiative to try and address that.”

I’ll set aside the question of how well-synchronized the first pay-and-display meters installed a few years ago by the city were. I suspect that no one bothered to ask that question until there was a private operator in the mix.

What I will say though is that I doubt you would have seen the same prompt action were the meter system still in city hands, jumping within 24 hours to reset thousands of parking meters to give “free” minutes in reaction to an overblown story like this. This follows the same pattern described in my recent article here—yes, the early implementation of the parking meter lease has had its share of operational challenges, but the concessionaire has also been diligent about rectifying them.

In this case, though, it’s unfortunate that the concessionaire is having to step in and eat some costs to appease people who can’t be bothered to check the clock and do some basic math. Call me crazy, but I don’t expect a clock on the wall to match my cell phone, I don’t expect my computer to match my cell phone, and I don’t expect a parking meter to match my cell phone. Chicagoans would do well to remember that the purpose of a parking meter is to count time, not to tell it.

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