A NYC councilman has proposed a reward system for civilian-provided evidence of parking violations. The revenue motivations are obvious, but the consequences are far easier to speculate upon than confidently predict. I’m usually reluctant to make policy forecasts, but in this one case it is probably fair to say I am unusually qualified. So how’s this going to play out?
Well, first of all, this is a relatively narrow set of bounties that promise a person 25% of the resulting $175 ticket for providing evidence of an illegally blocked bike lane, sidewalk, or school entrance (five minutes of googling did not yield insight into any associated fees that might be applied on top of the fine). Not only is it relatively specific in its aims, it’s also not unprecedented: rewards for NYC citizens who report illegally idling vehicles “generated 12,267 reports in 2021… netting the city $2.3 million and $724,293” for the reporting citizens. Which is to say that relatively modest rewards appear to be more than sufficient to get New Yorkers to snitch on each other, and the institutions appear to be more than comfortable issuing fines based on a civilian-provided evidence. Ninety-two percent of the idling vehicle reports lead to a fine being issued (though not necessarily paid), each generating a $87.50 bounty for the reporting party. One man has reportedly earned $125,000 from reporting idling vehicle.
For a bounty to be earned “a citizen needs to submit a time- and date-stamped video taken during the time of observation that shows the commercial truck or bus continuously idling for more than three minutes,… needs to contain the license plate and the company information [and] the sound of the idling engine needs to be clearly heard”. Given those standards, the 92% issuance rate is perhaps less surprising. It only takes a little reflection for $87.50 is seem a pretty healthy bounty. If we consider that affordablity of modern digital equipment (i.e. your phone) and video editing software (often bundled free with your phone or computer), opportunistic enforcement seems more than sufficiently incentivized.
But what about more than opportunistic enforcement? There is the very real possibility that private enforcement could scale, and not in the way a city would at least purport to hope. If we may recap the context in question:
- There is an unending supply of vehicles
- low cost carried video equipment
- low cost video editing software
- Individuals with a high material reward for submitting evidence sufficient to receive a reward
- A city whose revenue needs provide it every incentive to be entirely credulous of any evidence provided
- A relatively high cost (if only in time spent) of challenging a violation
Revenue incentives distort police discretion. While it may feel like this bounty system is outsourcing the work to civilians, but what it’s really doing is moving the discretionary moment institutionally downstream to the court system that must now adjudicate the quality of the evidence provided. I expect the chain of command within a court system to be no less effective at channeling budget incentives down their own hierarchies of supervision and reporting.
Okay, I’ve laid out enough bread crumbs leading from incentives to potentially unintended consquences. What do I think will happen when this and other similar civilian traffic law bounties go into effect?
- Non-trivial revenue will be generated, which will accelerate contagion to other municipalities
- Violation issuance rates will be >85% (comparable to anti-idling laws)
- Violent confrontations will occur around people who appear to be taking videos with their phones. Many of these people will just be taking selfies.
- Most violation reporters will be one-offs, but a small number will make a very large number of reports (i.e. the distribution will be long-tailed).
- These “super-reporters” will focus on hot spots where pick-up/drop-offs are inconvenient. Some will use long range microphones to avoid conflict.
- Some super-reporters will be credibly accused of submitting videos with edited sound.
- This will hurt ride share drivers more than anyone else, lowering their supply, while simultaneously reducing passenger convenience and reducing demand. The net price effect is uncertain, but I expect that the supply effect will dominate.
I expect that other cities will introduce civilian bounty systems unless there is a news-worthy spike in violent interactions around traffic-snitching accusations. Most municipal governments are strapped for cash at the moment, especially those who saw their traffic enforcement revenues plummet during lockdowns.
Lastly, I would only remind you that revenue-motivated law enforcement always has social consequences. Anyone who has ever lived under an HOA has had to deal with busy-bodies operating with a low opportunity cost of time and an eagerness to exert power in the smallest of fiefdoms. Bounties systems may end up creating exactly the institutional structure needed to increase the social footprint and subsidize the lifestyle of the most annoying person you know.
What if you set a maximum of, say, 1 bounty per person per month? There is definitely a public good for having fewer idling vehicles and blocked bike lanes, you have the same incentive for the majority of people, but you remove the incentive for abuse.
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