many old cars parked in front of meters

The Ethics of Performance versus Principle

This is another metric tradeoff that is of great interest to me, both professionally and philosophically. What do you do when your design process is faced with a tradeoff between two options: one that will work better but violates a principle that you think is important (but is not formally illegal or unethical) and one that works less well but has no such violations?

This is top of mind with me this morning because of a debate we are having in Boston about P2P parking apps like Haystack. If you are unfamiliar with these apps, they allow someone who is leaving a parking spot to announce it on the app network and someone looking for a spot can grab it, for a fee of course.

There are clear performance benefits. It saves the person parking a lot of time searching for a spot. And if they are willing to pay a few extra bucks, that is their choice. It is also good for the person leaving, because they earn a few bucks at the cost of maybe waiting a minute or two for the car to show up. And it has environmental benefits if it cuts down on the gas wasted from circling around looking for parking.

But the downsides are based on principle. These are city owned parking spaces and a private citizen is making money off of them. They are preventing someone else from getting into the spot in a more open way. They are adding to the digital divide because someone without a smartphone can’t participate. They are adding to the privileging of the wealthy because someone scrimping may not be able to afford an extra $3 for short term parking.

Should these principles trump the tangible benefits in time, gas, and carbon emissions?

Politicans’ views:

BTD will continue to evaluate any and all systems that may infringe upon the public’s right to equal access and/or those that may artificially inflate the cost of spaces on Boston roadways and in municipal off-street parking lots, and BTD will take appropriate measures to prohibit any such app that is determined to do so.

Free market advocate’s view:

Haystack provides a solution to a key market failure in popular parking areas: meter prices are too cheap, which results in excess demand.

Image credit: “Cars parked diagonally” by trialsanderrors used under CC BY 2.0

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