Smart parking systems are all the rage among many urban planners who expect they will decrease parking hassles and congestion. But planners should be careful what they wish for.
These systems seem to make a lot of sense for cities wishing to become "smarter." Sensors are embedded in roads and garages to determine where vehicles are parked and which spaces are vacant.
Smart parking meters on streets and garages can accept payments not only the old fashioned way, via coins, but also on the meter via plastic credit and debit cards, electronically from city Web pages, and wirelessly from laptops, smartphones, and tablets.
The sensors and meters receive power from underground cables, integrated batteries, or even the sun, and are linked to city servers, which run parking applications and employ detailed analytical software to evaluate the entire system. The results are fewer drivers wasting time looking for parking spaces, reduced air pollution from vehicles, and fewer people wondering "How much time is left on the meter?" or "Where exactly did I park my car?"
Alas, all is not rosy. These solutions have unintended consequences. For example, The Washington Post reported that Washington issued 1,808,587 tickets in fiscal year 2013, 84,936 fewer than in 2012, based on compilations from the American Automobile Association. That's a drop of 4.5%, with ticket revenues in 2013 of $84,458,255 compared to the previous year's revenues of $90,610,266, the newspaper said.
That's still a lot more than many other US cities, but consider this: The value of the tickets issued during the first six months of this current fiscal year is $25,348,683. That represents 393,340 tickets. If the next six months are about the same, that would mean a significant reduction in income.
The reason for the decrease is twofold: Fewer broken parking meters, and drivers using the Internet to pay the meters. Beginning in 2011, Washington began installing smart meters using Parkmobile USA's payment service.
Cities that decide it's a great idea to install smart parking meters should realize that one unintended consequence is a potential decrease in ticket revenues from expired meters. Indeed, many city parking apps transmit reminders to smartphones when the meter is about to expire. Fewer expired meters mean fewer tickets.
In addition, private smartphone apps enable drivers in some cities to fight parking tickets. One new application is Fixed, which has begun testing in San Francisco. A driver snaps a photo of a ticket and enters ticket's violation code.
Fixed replies with the chances of the ticket being dismissed, and includes a list of common mistakes that might get it thrown out, such as confusing signs and blocked signs. Take a look, for instance, at the parking problems in Los Angeles.
Fixed will send a paper copy of the driver's appeal -- twice -- to San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) to try to get the ticket dismissed. If it is, Fixed receives 25% of the amount of the fine. If the ticket is upheld, Fixed receives nothing.
Only about 5% of tickets are contested, but the MTA says that of that number 27% are dismissed on the first appeal, and 7% on the second. If more drivers contest tickets, city revenues could drop. Of course, cities can -- and do -- raise ticket prices or add more parking violations to make up for decreases. Cities also could ban the use of such apps.
One significant benefit of some smartphone apps is the ability to show the locations of unoccupied parking spaces. It certainly helps drivers, and also cities to evaluate parking and traffic dynamics.
However, if drivers know they will be able to find a convenient parking space quickly, without having to drive around for a long time, it could encourage more people to use their cars rather than public transportation, thus increasing traffic congestion. It reminds me of cities that construct new roads and expand existing ones in the hope of greatly reducing congestion, and seeing to their horror that traffic quickly increases because there's more space for more vehicles.
It's not that I'm against smart parking systems. On the contrary. But it's crucial for cities to understand that for every action, there might be many reactions, and they might not be what cities expect… or want. It's the "gotcha" of unintended consequences.
Congestion pricing has been implemented in only a few cities, and although it might be appropriate for New York, I'd hate to be in the middle of the fight for it! I can hear the arguments now about how congestion pricing will destroy business as well as favor the wealthy and harm the poor because they won't be able to afford or have a difficult time affording the extra costs.
As I just wrote to Terry (in my latest blog), I rode my bicycle in New York, but it was mostly in residential areas and it was a much different time when I was young. I'd be very hesitant to ride a bike in Manhattan -- too dangerous.
I do walk or take public transportation almost everywhere, but I have two bicycles and promote the concept of biking. But biking in a city like New York can be so dangerous that bike lanes must be separated from traffic, and that generates a tremendous amount of anger from drivers and their lobbyists.
Re: unintended consequences Yes, I'm a big fan of congestion pricing. Let's get people who don't have to use their own vehicles onto public transit. I'm not, however, a big fan of bikes. Get off and walk. Maybe it's the way people ride them here.
Thanks very much for the info. about the U.K. I don't like specialized prepaid cards because it's one more single-purpose item to carry, although I have a few pieces of plastic with barcodes on my keychain for loyalty clubs and libriaries.
The all-in-one card for multiple city services is better than single-purpose cards, but I suspect they are inferior to just using credit/debit cards. I guess there's a certainly security aspect to prepaid cards and they are useful for people who don't have any or many credit/cards or even a smartphone.
I prefer cellular phone payments or credit/debit cards because I'm always carrying those. (I hate driving, so I'm not likely to use these methods in any case!)
Re: unintended consequences @Alan, haha, that's quite a compelling image!
Actually, Barcelona maybe softening its "pro-pedestrian-public-transport" approach because of politics (an environmental lawyer here made a recent comment to that effect). So they're not immune here, either.
Re: Tricky business @Alan: The London area is split into 32 boroughs, each one with it's own local policies regarding parking and pricing but all largely in compliance with guidelines set down by Westminster. Most all meters can be paid using a service called Ringo with is SMS based and this has been around for a while. Many meters also accept pre-paid cards where there is a balance stored, this is popular. More recently credit cards are also accepted and in some boroughs there is a new all-in-one smart card that can be used for parking, libraries, leisure centers etc. This last is a compicated thing to introduce and has many unexpected consequences of it' s own. I look forward to your next blog!
I suspect cities in the U.S. will raise ticket prices if they are experiencing a significant decrease in revenues. But if they raise the prices too much, there could be a major backlash, although I'm not sure what residents could do. Storm the mayor's office and department of motor vehicles?!
I'm not sure how many parking meter companies exist in the U.S., but there is a definite trend towards installing meters that can accept credit cards and, recently, that can accept payment via phones. How is the situation in the U.K.?
I haven't read anything about residents complaining about the different payment methods. Most people like it, I assume, especially being reminded on their phone when the meter will expire.
But as I noted, if it's easier to pay for meters before they expire and easier to fight tickets using smartphone apps, cities will lose revenues... unless they raise prices! And while Kim and others have mentioned in these comments that it's kind of silly to complain about more people obeying the law (adding to meters and paying fines or getting them dismissed), the fact remains that cities could see a loss of revenues.
Lots of unintended consequences to come as part of the evolution of the Internet of Things. (I've got another Future Cities blog coming up about pedestrian/vehicle dynamics and I'm working on a blog about traffic security. Hint: ever see "Live Free or Die Hard"?)
Tricky business @Alan: interesting article. I worked for a local council in London a while ago and the project was to introduce new smarter meters and cards. it seems that most parking systems, in the UK at least, are run by one or two large companies who are very slow to evolve and whose technology focus is not that intense. Parking revenues are a two edged sword for the councils anyway. More revenues means more complaints and less money from Westminster, less revenue means complaints also but more money from westminster...it is all swings and roundabouts.
As I commented to Kim, many cities count on parking ticket revenues and they must find new ways to make up the shortfall if smart technology and apps decrease them. A decrease in parking meter fines could result in hiring fewer "parking enforcement officers," but that isn't likely to significantly increase city revenues.
I understand the value of decreasing the number of parking violations; it's a good thing. Cities will raise prices for tickets.
Many more people in the U.S. are killed and injured by vehicles than guns. If we consider vehicles as lethal weapons and restrict their use to relatively few people who are subject to in-depth background checks, it would help reclaim our cities for pedestrians, not to mention the many benefits.
That's really great about Barcelona. You and Pablo have been doing a great job discussing Barcelona's smart city initiatives.
I'd love to see U.S. cities begin aggressively paving over roads in favor of pedestrian walkways and bicycle (not motorcycle) paths. The cement/asphalt/concrete trucks could pave right over all the screaming lobbyists for the American Automobile Association, car manufacturers, gasoline station owners, and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. They could be "lifelike" statues displayed for the enjoyment of walkers and bikers!
As for the increased traffic congestion, well boo-hoo! Still, that only will work if Barcelona continuously improves the scope and efficiency of pedestrian/bike paths.
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