Other cities learned from Chicago’s privatization of parking meters

Failures in one city can help other cities learn what not to do:

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aggressively pushed to privatize 311 in 2015, telling journalists it would save the city “about a million dollars a year” to run the system using contractors. Hiring an outside operator would save the city from shouldering the cost of sorely needed improvements to a 20-year-old system, he suggested.

City officials weren’t thrilled at the idea. A famously unpleasant privatization effort was still in people’s minds. About 10 years ago, Chicago made an 80-year deal to pass control over its parking meters to a private firm in exchange for a $1.2 billion lump sum. The firm promptly made more than half that lump sum in revenue for itself—and still has 70 years of returns. (I wrote about this in WIRED last year.)

But that parking meter deal has been remarkably generative: It has dampened enthusiasm for privatization in cities around the country. Left to its own rational profit-making devices, a private company will systematically squeeze services to the bare minimum and avoid additional investments. That’s fine for margins, but not always great for the public.

And so when Emanuel proposed privatizing 311, scores of Chicago aldermen felt emboldened to fight.

At least other cities and Chicago now think twice before privatizing certain services. This could also lead to at least a few interesting interesting research questions:

  1. Part of the pitch for privatization was increased efficiency. Would more reluctance for such deals hold back cities in certain ways?
  2. How have private companies shifted their efforts now that cities may be wiser about making such deals? I assume this means that profit margins on such deals are smaller…

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