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Alternative Futures: Could Tech Rid Us of Parking Tickets?

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Few aspects of city government provoke as much emotion as parking.  Most drivers are familiar with the sense of dismay and frustration at seeing a ticket tucked under the windshield wiper that ruins the high of a new purchase from that trendy downtown boutique or the satisfaction from brunch’s eggs benedict.

Urban consumers are not the only ones frustrated — shops and restaurants in bustling commercial areas have their own issues with parking, too. If you charge too much, drivers will avoid the district, but if you charge too little, the prime street spots will be taken up for hours.

No matter how walkable, bikeable, or transit-oriented your city is, parking is likely still a problem. Existing parking infrastructure prioritizes car storage but is not well calibrated to different uses in urban environments or smart-phone enabled users. New tech solutions are arising to address parking issues with the aim of making what is often a source of frustration more convenient and fair for all users.

Parking as a Commodity

The first step in improving parking is recognizing that it should not be treated as a consumable public good but instead as a commodity, priced according to economic principles. Donald Shoup, a former professor of planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, is responsible for influential research that has changed the discussion about parking (and engendered an enthusiastic group of evangelists known as “Shoupistas”).

William Fulton, former Mayor of Ventura, California and renowned SmartGrowth advocate, explains how Shoup framed parking as a commodity; if its too plentiful and inexpensive, people will use it inefficiently, and sacrifice valuable urban land to feed an ever-growing demand.

Charging appropriate rates for parking influences travel behavior. Downtown priority parking rates should be expensive enough to encourage those who can walk, bike, or take public transportation instead of drive to do so. For those who drive, parking rates should be high enough to encourage turnover of prime spaces. Efficiently priced parking can make urban environments more vibrant and improve business profits.

System-Based Solutions

Municipalities — even small ones — are adopting practices that reflect Shoup’s research to address their parking issues. For example, the City of Rock Hill, South Carolina implemented a system to limit parking times in downtown spaces to three hours, as highlighted on its .

Since smart devices track the time enforcement system, new offenders’ tickets are at much lower rates than those of repeat offenders. The smart solution keeps visitors happy while also ensuring that prime parking spaces in the downtown business district are not occupied all day.

In addition to municipalities, drivers who use city parking are also benefitting from new technology. “Feeding the meter” with loose change is becoming a thing of the past as cities change to smart-phone systems that alert customers when they are going past their time limits, allow for users to add more time, and even help drivers find their parked cars. Minneapolis, Minnesota recently implemented such a parking app, while Washington, D.C. has had a similar system in place for years.

Tech for Parking Tickets

Other innovative tech companies have focused on the most annoying part of the parking cycle — challenging a ticket. Many parking tickets are invalid, due to technicalities such as inadequate signage or faded curb painting. Yet, fighting them takes time, and time is money. An app out of Oakland, California, Fixed, addresses the specific problem of parking ticket payments and disputes.

A disgruntled Fixed app user can snap a photo of a parking ticket and the parking conditions in the app’s service markets in California (San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles). Then, a team of lawyers submit claims on the customer’s behalf. If the traffic court overturns the ticket, the Fixed user pays the app 25 percent of what he would have paid for the ticket.

However, as Gizmodo reports, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) has stopped accepting Fixed’s submissions, allegedly due to the app’s backend support through Xerox no longer facilitating the transactions. SFMTA has been uncooperative with the app before, too. TechCrunch reports that when Fixed began faxing its submissions to SFMTA, the agency emailed the app to stop using the fax machine and actually turned the fax machine off, effectively blocking submissions. Stymied by these developments, Fixed now concentrates on addressing tickets for other traffic violations, and has suspended its parking ticket service for the time being.

San Francisco’s parking ticket fees are some of the highest in the nation, averaging $74. So, the city’s reticence to encouraging an app that allows citizens to escape paying should come as no surprise. Cities make money off of parking and aren’t eager to give that income up, which serves as yet another example of the headwinds that tech startups face in the most entrenched industries.

Payoff for Cities, Businesses, and Citizens

As parking systems evolve, cities may become able to utilize data solutions to plan for more efficient parking management. For example, parking in neighborhoods that utilize transit could be analyzed to assess whether residents actually use parking.

Parking data could be used to rationalize lower parking minimums, which are often cited as hindrances to new developments in urban places, including Washington, D.C. In fact, in a recent Washington Post interview, former transportation czar and author, Gabe Klein, asserts that better suited parking regulations would actually lead to the construction of more affordable housing.

Treating parking like the commodity that it is while incorporating technology solutions makes sense. Efficiently priced parking may increase revenue for cities and at the same time discourage those who have other means of transportation from driving. Utilizing technology solutions allows for data-driven management decisions-making and can help make the case for rational solutions to what is often an emotional issue.

Emily Brown

Emily works in urban planning, helping cities to become more competitive. She was named as one of 40 under 40 economic developers, and has taken part in a successful Kickstarter…

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