Park by Phone

I had the pleasure/horror of serving as the lead negotiator for the neighborhood in the NW Portland Parking Plan in the early part of the last decade (and I wish more success to the folks who are trying again a decade later).

But one thing I got out of that process was an understanding of what was in the pipeline for parking technology. And one of the predicted developments has arrived, paying for your parking with a cell phone. Although, I’ll confess that what I expected to see was a number that you would call, followed by punching in a code. My crystal ball was not sufficient to see ‘apps’ in our future…

12 responses to “Park by Phone”

  1. If the app actually works as advertised, it may take less time to pay for parking than it did for the Oregonian comment thread on the parking article to slip into homophobia and racism.

    The management company must have a sweetheart merchant account deal if they’re able to profit from the 35 cent transaction fee. (Or are they asking the city to quietly absorb some of the costs, which isn’t indicated in the article?)

    Come to think of it, the city is already paying authorization and per-transaction fees on the credit card transactions, so perhaps the management company can indeed inflate the price by 35 cents and grab most of that.

    There’s also the “what if everybody does it?” scenario. Right now, parking enforcement personnel can walk a block fairly quickly, looking for parking receipts in the window (or under a bungee on a motorcycle — provided no prankster has robbed the biker), and comparing the printed time.

    With this new scheme, whenever a car with no receipt is encountered, personnel must stop and check the license plate number against the database. The speed of that transaction is critical. However, if someday a large number of drivers choose this payment method, parking enforcement personnel will have to pause much more often, which increases patrol costs.

    Will a day come when all cars have RFID tags (and the corresponding privacy issues), and all parking spaces have readers? Why not just pull into a space and your card is automatically charged for the total when you drive away later?

  2. I would imagine parking enforcement would have an app that can automatically read the plates of cars with no receipts and determine if the appropriate fee has been paid. It shouldn’t take any more time than slowing down to read a printed receipt in the window.

    Bob R. Says: “Why not just pull into a space and your card is automatically charged for the total when you drive away later?”

    Because then nobody would pay more than they had to and the city would lose out on the extra revenue from overpayments. The technology already exists, it’s used in FastPay lanes of toll booths. But the city would never implement something like that for parking.

  3. “It shouldn’t take any more time than slowing down to read a printed receipt in the window.”

    Most parking downtown is parallel… you have to get in between the cars to get a good shot of a plate (unless the adjacent space is vacant), or otherwise key in the plate number. It’s still going to take longer than moving along in a straight line looking at receipts in the window.

    “The technology already exists, it’s used in FastPay lanes of toll booths.”

    Well, FastPay for tolls is an easier implementation. The readers (or cameras in some implementations) can be fixed in one place and get clear detection as the cars move by the fixed point.

    To implement FastPay for parking, every block would need readers or cameras capable of noting plate numbers and determining whether a card had parked, when it departed, etc. With today’s tech that’s a high capital cost.

    Some cities experimenting with congestion charges are implementing readers or cameras on all through streets leading into the congestion zone, but that’s still an order of magnitude fewer devices than would be needed to accurately assess every paid parking space.

    So in fairness to the to which you’re ascribing nefarious intent, the answer may simply be that no such technology exists in a deployable form, yet.

  4. Oh, and specifically, your assertion that “Because then nobody would pay more than they had to and the city would lose out on the extra revenue from overpayments” is partly undermined by the actual article. The cellphone/app system will text you when your time ending so you can add more time from wherever you are. Why would the city implement something which would result in fewer parking tickets issued and fewer people overpaying to avoid accidentally not returning in time?

  5. The technology already exists, it’s used in FastPay lanes of toll booths. But the city would never implement something like that for parking.

    Pointed out in a OregonLive comment, this might be offset by the ability to automatically charge people fines for overstaying.

    I have a really hard time imagining how I’d design such an automatic system. Cameras at every street just seems like too much. The best I can come up with is perhaps dongles everyone keeps in their cars, with some kind of active RFID tag or RF-something. Then the existing meters would be replaced with ones that could detect these tags at a large enough distance that you could do triangulation between multiple kiosks to determine the position of the car. When you park, a little light on the device would change color to let you know you’ve been registered as parked (perhaps as a backup, when that fails, you press some button to manually clock in). Meter readers would be have some kinda of PDA that can communicate with the devices and quickly verify someone is legitimately parked.

  6. Cameras these days, are cheap. Your phone probably has two of them.

    One complaint that people had when the city went from the old-style meters adjacent to each space to the centralized system, is that if someone overpaid and left early, the next person couldn’t “use their time”–though the new system (which permits you to park somewhere else on the same ticket) seems more fair.

    I’m not sure if the city makes much money on parking fines–tickets cost money to issue and process, and the penalty for overtime parking is quite low compared to other fines for infractions. It may keep a few folks employed, but I doubt its a profit center for local government.

    As far as checking and enforcing violations goes, there wouldn’t be any need to check each car’s plate (or require installation of transponders). The system will be able to tell an officer which parking places are presently paid for and which are not, which is irrespective of the car. If a car is found in a spot which is indicated by the database as “unpaid”, then the officer can run the plates and verify that the car is really in violation (as opposed to a car which paid at another space and moved, but still has “time on the meter”). No need to check each car. This won’t catch the problem of someone overpays and leaves and someone else takes the spot w/o paying, but unlike with the old meters, there’s no way the second driver will know that there’s still “time on the meter”; and the legal regime (which assigns parking rights to the vehicle, not the space) will not protect him.

    One other thing a plate-based system might help with (though this complicates the enforcement issue above) is enforcing maximums. The current system depends on officers marking cars to detect those that have tried to pay for more than the maximum time; if you have to specify your plate number to buy parking, the system might be able to refuse a purchase if someone tries to buy more than the max time in a given stall.

  7. Bob,

    You’re right. It would be harder to implement than FastPay booths, but my point was that the technology is there. I know different states use different systems, but I was thinking, like Aaron G, an RFID for payment and a variety of optons for enforcement. But maybe reading the actual plates, like at toll booths, isn’t the best option for enforcement.

    I do stand by my assertion, though, that the city would lose money with this type of system, and therefore would not be inclined to implement it. If you know you will get a warning text before your meter expires, you no longer have to guess how long you’re gonna be parked in a specific location. I know when I’m not sure how long an errand is gonna take, I’ll put a little extra time on the meter to cover any unforeseen delays. There’s no reason to do that if I can remotely add more time. How many thousands of people drive away from a parking space every day even though they still have 20-30 minutes on their meter (or receipt)? That’s revenue the city would lose when people no longer need to overpay. It also means fewer tickets are written because people can plug the meters remotely when they get the warning text.

    Now having said that, if the system was sophisticated enough to read ALL parking spaces simultaneously, in real time, and was able to determine EVERY car that either hadn’t paid or surpassed their allotted time, then issue tickets without the need for roving enforcement officers (either by mail or through the DMV)…
    THEN the city would have incentive to spend the capital costs to implement the system. Nobody would be able to get away without paying to park. And without human meter readers and their vehicles, the city would save millions in operational costs.

  8. Cameras are cheap, but just getting them mounted in a way that they covered every plate in every space in the city seemed like it would be a little difficult to me.

    But, one benefit of an optical system is you’d have evidence of someone’s lack of paying without the meter-reader needing to discover it. Maybe the stations could have those that are paying manually enter the license plate number or otherwise identify their car to the system. Then you could just get parking tickets in the mail without having to waste humans on the job, like from a red light camera.

  9. Seems like a good idea. What we really need is a system like SF is implementing, with smart meters and “free market” pricing. This would help resolve street parking issues around PSU and during certain sporting events:

  10. To clarify my comment above–I’m assuming that most of times, motorists will pay their (initial) parking fee with a GPS-enabled phone, and that as such the system will know exactly where they are parked.

  11. Today’s GPS-enabled phones (including ones which also rely on public WiFi triangulation to augment or replace GPS in dead spots, such as the iPhone), aren’t so great at establishing a position in urban settings.

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