How does Boston cope with 450,000 cars competing daily for about 55,000 legal parking spaces in a maze of streets that evolved from cowpaths? By preventing some 300,000 Massachusetts drivers with five or more unpaid parking tickets from renewing their licenses and registrations this month, as well as immobilizing and fining vehicles with five or more outstanding tickets.
To the driver who discovers a bright yellow hunk of metal known as a ''Denver Boot'' clamped onto the wheel of his car, and spends over $100 and a day standing in line to have it removed, the penalty may seem extreme. But to Boston officials who for years have struggled with a maximum of traffic congestion, a minimum of parking spaces, and a lot of unpaid tickets, the crackdown is like pennies from heaven.
In the past, says John A. Vitagliano, Boston's traffic and parking commissioner, ''the ticketing program itself was something of a farce. The smart action to take, frankly, was to ignore the ticket. The (payment) collection rate was less than 10 percent, and the fines for nonpayment were so low, that it didn't make sense to obey the system. Which meant that we really did not have a system.
''It was basically unfair, it was politically corrupt; to be honest about it, people were able to get tickets fixed on a regular basis depending upon who you knew. . . .''
So until legislation was passed in 1981 that transferred the responsiblity for ticket collection away from local courts to municipalities, says Mr. Vitagliano, enforcement was next to impossible.
''Now the collection rate exceeds 75 percent, is climbing every month, and is in line with the national average. The ticketing program now has meaning.''
What has given the program ''meaning'' is the computerized ticket collection system set up a little over a year ago by Datacom Systems Corporation of New York, which has similar systems in some 60 cities and towns nationwide. The computer service (which cost the City of Boston some $3.5 million last year) is hooked into the state's Registry of Motor Vehicles and keeps tabs on the some 1. 5 million fluorescent-orange $15 parking tickets issued annually.
Seventy-five percent of those tickets go to non-Boston residents who park in the city's resident-only areas, Vitagliano says. This is one reason why in the last six weeks, the names of some 300,000 Massachusetts drivers who must pay their fines before getting a new driver's license or auto registration have been sent to the registry.
After a vehicle has accumulated five or more unpaid tickets going back as far as 1978 (and its driver has ignored at least 20 warning notices), it is eligible for the infamous Denver Boot. The wheel-locking device immobilizes a car until $ 56 and paid-up tickets win it back.
(Companies such as Freedom Trail Ticket Removal, Humiliation Elimination, and Ticket Away leave bright-colored flyers on car windshields of booted cars, offering to deal with the de-booting process. For a $10 membership fee plus a $ 15 service charge, Freedom Trail, for example, will send a courier to collect cash, a certified check, or a credit card (5 percent charge) from the violator, and pay the outstanding fees and fine to have the boot removed.)
Since the crackdown began 18 months ago, some 2,000 scofflaws have had to pay from $500 to $6,000 each to have their cars de-booted. Average offenders pay approximately $150 - five $15 tickets with $5 overdue fine, plus the de-booting charge.
So far this year the City of Boston has collected about ''$22 million in parking fines, which is exactly what we pulled in last year,'' the parking commissioner says. Two years ago the figure was about $4 million.
But Vitagliano asserts that the primary goal, ''is not revenue, but to achieve order out of chaos.''
Boston also plans to repair some 6,000 parking meters and add 4,000 more meters by shortening spaces between meter poles by 10 percent - from 22 feet to 20 feet. And with $1-an-hour meter fees in the downtown area, more coins will jangle in city coffers.