Local authorities nationwide started implementing a new policy to crack down on illegal parking last Thursday. Most people welcome stricter enforcement, since it presumably means safer streets and a smoother traffic flow. But there are many who don’t like the new system, in particular people who operate motor vehicles for a living. The media has concentrated on the crackdown’s likely effect on delivery people, since there’s a widespread belief that a vehicle will be ticketed even if it stops for one minute. Wide shows have predicted swarms of parking monitors sweeping through downtown areas tagging everything in sight. It’s the attack of the meter maids.

Except that the new monitors seem to be, mostly, middle-aged men. One of the main features of the new system is that the police will no longer check parking, at least in large cities. That work is being outsourced to private companies who bid for contracts with local government bodies. These bodies train and certify the selected company’s employees as parking patrols.

An NHK report aired two weeks ago looked at other examples of outsourced parking enforcement operations. South Korea’s seems to be successful since its main purpose is to discourage illegal parking, rather than punish violators. London’s, however, is fraught with problems. It uses contract workers as monitors who, because they work on commission, write as many citations as possible. Some delivery people receive as many as four tickets a day.

NHK interviewed a traffic expert who said that the main problem with Japan’s old parking enforcement system was that people who were ticketed felt discriminated against. The new system will eliminate this “Why me?” factor. However, the expert didn’t say anything about the real goal of parking enforcement, which is to clear the streets of automobile clutter.

It’s not clear how the new system will accomplish this. According to the National Police Agency, at any given moment in 2005 there were an estimated 976,000 illegally parked cars in Tokyo, which amounts to 427 million parking violations over the course of a year. The police gave out 470,000 parking tickets in 2005, meaning only about 0.1 percent of violators were cited. When the new system was being discussed in the Diet in 2004, an NPA representative said they hoped to double the number of parking tickets with the new system, which means optimally only 0.2 percent of violators will be cited.

So even if the new system works according to plan, it will hardly solve Tokyo’s parking problems. Journalist Ryoichi Imai, a traffic expert writing in Shukan Kinyobi, claims that the real purpose of the new system has little to do with cleaning up illegally parked cars.

The real innovation isn’t the outsourcing of parking patrols, but rather the method of administering fines. With the old system, when a driver receives a violation notice (kakunin hosho), he is required to report the violation and receive a form, which he then uses to pay his fine. By reporting the violation, he, in effect, pleads guilty to a traffic offense and receives penalty points on his driver’s license. If one accumulates a certain number of points, the driving license is suspended.

This system remains, but there is a new feature called hochi ihankin (neglect fine). Not surprisingly, many drivers do not report violations. From now on when this happens, the person who owns the ticketed car is sent a payment form, regardless of whether or not he was the person who parked the car. No traffic penalty points are involved, but if the owner doesn’t pay, the authorities will not renew the car’s certificate of mandatory vehicle inspection (shaken). If the owner accumulates unpaid violations, the car can be impounded.

The difference is obvious. With the old method the driver is punished. With the new one the car is punished, and illegal parking is decriminalized. Obviously, no one is going to report violations any more, and Imai conjectures that the only reason the old system has been retained is that it gives the police some marginal involvement in the parking issue. Hochi ihankin is book-keeping, not police work.

It’s an important distinction. Illegally parked cars provide valuable revenues for local governments, about 20 billion yen a year. Under the old system, all traffic fines, including those for parking, were paid to a central fund and then redistributed to local governments to pay for traffic safety measures and equipment.

Under the new system, fines paid through the hochi ihankin system go directly to the local government, and since the local government pays for the monitors who give out the tickets, the system is self-perpetuating. Theoretically, a crackdown would mean fewer violations which, in the long run, would necessitate fewer monitors. But as the Tokyo parking statistics for 2005 show, any system that relies only on punishment has little real effect on illegal parking. The only way to solve the problem of automobile clutter is better city planning and stricter traffic control laws.

One concern is how the private sector will profit from the new system. Asahi Shimbun has already reported that many of the companies who provide patrols have former policemen and retired NPA officials on their payrolls. And in Osaka, two of the six companies selected also own parking lots, which means they make money off of parking violators coming and going.

However, the new system does appear to accomplish one of its stated purposes, which is to free the police from parking patrol duties and allow them to pursue more important work. Last week, I passed by my local police station and saw four uniformed officers washing a patrol car. It was really clean.