Curbing their enthusiasm

Mexico City introduces controversial parking meters
David Agren
Carmelo Morales, 36, known as a "franelero"or "rag boy", works to park cars on the streets in the Condesa neighborhood in Mexico City February 3, 2011. Franeleros, known to signal to drivers looking for parking spaces by frantically waving a tattered cloth, have been enterprising hustlers in this congested capital city by cornering the street parking racket long ago. But they could see their monopoly unravelling as officials get tough and automatic parking meters multiply. Picture taken February 3. To match Reuters Life! MEXICO-VALET/ REUTERS/Henry Romero (MEXICO - Tags: TRANSPORT EMPLOYMENT BUSINESS) - RTXXLXA
Curbing their enthusiasm
Henry Romero/Reuters

Parking is at a premium in Mexico City, leaving an army of informal attendants known as viene-vienes to assign spots on the street. The rag-waving viene-vienes draw their name from their call to customers, “Come here! Come here!” They also evoke disdain for their work of watching cars for tips—effectively collecting payments for allowing people to park in public places.

Mexico City has moved against the viene-vienes by putting parking meters in popular neighbourhoods. It’s an attempt at establishing order in a city where car ownership has exploded: people often park on the sidewalks and spots are so scarce that stores like Starbucks offer valet parking. It’s also an attempt to claim the proceeds of ?“an incredibly lucrative activity,” says David Lozano, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Lozano estimates the city’s 4,500 viene-vienes, who mark their spaces in the street with water bottles and concrete blocks, collect a total of $50,000 daily and says they are often organized by “mafias” that share the take with corrupt politicians.

The new parking meters, charging 65 cents per hour, have been controversial but effective. Installing parking meters last year in the posh Polanco district resulted in a 40 per cent increase in the number of available spots, according to one study. But some residents in the chic Condesa neighbourhood voted “no” in a consultation, arguing that poor planning and the out-of-control opening of bars and restaurants—which lack parking lots—brought in too many cars.

The viene-vienes say they’re no villains, just simple folk scratching out an existence in a country with 60 per cent of its workforce labouring in the informal economy. “Nobody wants to hire a guy my age,” says viene-viene José Mendez, 55, as he waves down cars buzzing by a busy hospital. Some vienes-vienes appear to be adapting, however: they now plug coins in the parking meters for the same people whose cars they previously watched for tips.