[USAToday] Coin-operated parking becomes ancient history as apps, sensors take over cities

This article was originally published on USAToday on October 11th, 2017

LOS ANGELES — The last coin-operated meter was yanked out of the Portland, Oregon downtown area in 2016 and now resides in a local historical museum.

Welcome to the future, where you’ll never have to scrounge for quarters and may soon add parking to your list of monthly subscriptions, after Netflix and Spotify.

Today, visitors to the downtown area’s 1,900 parking spots use the Portland “Parking Kitty,” a high-tech meter that connects to a smartphone app. The app purrs when you pay and “meows” 15 minutes before your time expires to remind you to get back to the car or to request and pay for additional time.

High-tech parking isn’t unique to Portland, and it’s probably coming to a meter near you. Coin meters have given over to digital meters in eight of the top 10 U.S. cities, with various levels of sophistication. Meters that began with pay-by-phone have expanded to a current mix of pay via credit card and/or apps.

The next phase of the technology, which uses cameras to automatically track your parking via license plates and then charges your account, has now started to roll out in some cities. It’s already raised some concerns over privacy.

The American Civil Liberties Union, on its website, notes that license plate readers are used for way more than making parking easier. They’re also tracking our every move.

The readers “have the potential to create permanent records of virtually everywhere any of us has driven, radically transforming the consequences of leaving home to pursue private life, and opening up many opportunities for abuse.”

For cities, the incentive is big: higher revenues and fewer human resources devoted to checking meters. And the apps (ParkMe, SpotHero) also give drivers additional perks, such as tools to find open spaces or remind you (Parker) where you parked.

“Ten years ago the parking industry didn’t have all these options. We’re trying to evolve as quickly as possible,” says Malisa McCreedy, division manager of the Portland Bureau of Transportation. Launched in May, Parking Kitty represents 6% of Portland’s parking transactions.

 

Early years: Pay-by-phone

As consumers’ financial options changed, more carrying plastic than coins, the industry gave pay-by-phone a try. But it’s a complicated process that requires writing down a code advertised by the meter, calling an assigned phone number, and typing in the digits and your credit card number.

As such, usage for the pay-by-phone offering is in the “single digits,” in Boston, says Kristopher Carter, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in Boston.

Apps linked to credit cards have been far more popular, representing 75% of Boston payments.

The ParkBoston app, just two years old, tallied  3 million transactions last year  for Boston’s 8,000 spaces. Parking revenue is up, and the issuing of tickets is down, Carter adds.

“It’s easier to pay and avoid tickets when you get a countdown on your phone with an audible alert,” Carter says.

With the apps like ParkBoston, a smartphone owner downloads the app, registers and stores credit card information. When you park, you type in the code and confirm the license plate, which identifies your car. The average fee to use the apps to pay is 35 cents on top of the parking transaction.

Two companies dominate the municipal parking-by-app at meters: Charlotte-based Passport, which does the Portland app along with apps for Boston, Chicago, London and other large cities, and Atlanta-based ParkMobile, whose app works with meters in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas and San Jose.

ParkMobile is launching later this year in San Antonio and Phoenix and Passport is bringing its app to the Los Angeles Metro parking lots, where commuters park before landing a morning train in to work.

Cameras replace attendants

As with the recent parking app introduced at tony L.A. shopping mall the Westfield Century City, once you download the app, you don’t even have to type in a code. Cameras recognize the license plate of the car and bill you accordingly.

Westfield says the technology will be coming to other of its malls in 2018.

“License plates are where the industry is headed,” says Bob Youakim, the CEO of Passport.

The old way involved a parking staffer driving up and down the street, looking at meters to see if you’ve paid in full or not. The coming way: just let the camera do the work.

“Cities can scan 100 license plates a minute, vs. manually looking to see if your space is paid for or not,” says Youakim.

Many analysts don’t believe we’ll still have smartphones 10 years or more from now. We’ll be so far into the future, many of us could be sitting back and have the robot drive us to work in self-driving cars.

By 2027, Youakim predicts, we’ll pay a family subscription that will give us a certain amount of monthly miles of ride shares in connected cars, and his business will focus on offering municipalities charging technology for the vehicles.

For now, as convenient as parking via app is, (in DC, 65% of all parking meter fees are via the ParkMobile app) robots don’t always get it right.

In Portland, some parkers have complained on Twitter about getting tickets because the app didn’t read its license plate correctly. Or maybe you don’t own a smartphone (although that’s becoming rare) and only have a flip phone.

Concerns over license-plate tracking aren’t far-fetched. Genetech, the Montreal-based company that’s known as a leader in License Plate Recognition technology for government, touts its “city wide surveillance video system,” on its website, of which LPR is a subset.

On the plus side, imagine life in the future on a bigger, wider sidewalk, one without parking meters.

“Potentially, we could see no meters on the curb,” says Carter from Boston. As you pull into your space, the cameras would recognize the license plate, and pay the time directly to the city, thus eliminating the need for those long, silver contraptions that have been blotting our sidewalks since the 1930s.