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City Parking Enforcement Goes Paperless

Pittsburgh and other cities are testing a new app that places license plate recognition technology on smartphones.

There’s an urban legend about a man who had his car stolen and although police couldn't find the vehicle, he continued receiving parking tickets in the mail. Mike Bourre, vice president of sales and marketing for a parking technology company called Gtechna, confirmed that such things have happened around the country for years. But as parking and law enforcement systems become interconnected and as mobile devices become more capable, officials are gaining a heightened awareness of what’s happening in their cities.

“If government’s smarter, that kind of stuff shouldn’t happen,” Bourre said, adding that in many cities, those stories don’t occur anymore, thanks to new parking enforcement technology -- from car-mounted Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR), to manual- and automatic-entry smartphone scanners -- that allows parking and law enforcement agencies to share data across the cloud.

Washington, D.C., for instance, alerts law enforcement when a parked vehicle is linked to criminal activity. When the parking attendant scans a license plate, it’s checked against various hotlists, like Amber Alerts and stolen vehicles. If the vehicle is identified as stolen, the vehicle’s information, such as location, would be immediately dispatched to the police, with no action required by the parking attendant.

The future of parking is centered around the license plate, said Bourre. More and more cities are moving toward paperless parking, allowing drivers to pay by phone using their license plate as an identifier, or  pay at a kiosk by entering their license plate number on a keypad. This move toward just using the license plate and doing away with everything else changes the parking game for governments, Bourre said.

Galveston, Texas, started using Gtechna’s automated license plate reading system last year. After years of debate, the city began charging for parking along the Galveston Seawall, an eight-mile, four-lane stretch running along the city’s beach area -- a place USA Today recently ranked the nation’s No. 2 spring break destination. That stretch has about 1,400 parking spaces, and without ALPR, said Officer Sean Migues, it would be a lot harder to enforce parking.

When the city chose parking management technology in 2011, Migues said, a lot of people wanted parking meters and pay boxes. But that equipment is prone to rust when located near the ocean, so the city opted for ALPR instead. The city bought five sets of car-based ALPR scanners and printers, and 10 handheld systems, which include a Samsung Rugby Pro smartphone and a Bluetooth-enabled printer. The initial cost for the equipment was $132,000 and the city now pays about $19,500 in annual support and maintenance.

“If we didn’t have this technology, our labor costs would go through the roof,” Migues said. “You would really have to have more boots on the ground.” 

The plate readers are accurate and very fast, he said, letting police dedicate more time to eliminating crime in the area and less time to entering plate numbers. License plate-based parking management also enables new options, Migues said, such as allowing drivers to change parking spots once they’ve paid.

Migues is a fan of the technology, but says entering plate numbers manually on mobile devices made specifically for parking enforcement can be slow. However, Gtechna is piloting a new Android app in Pittsburgh that allows parking enforcement officers to use ALPR technology on their own smartphones.

Bourre says the new smartphone app will generate big savings for large cities because they won't need to purchase dedicated license plate scanning devices or manual entry devices, which typically cost around $3,000 each. It also helps put sophisticated partking enforcement technology within reach of smaller cities by lowering hardware costs, he said. The app is scheduled for a full release this summer.

Seattle, another Gtechna client, soon will move to a paperless system, Bourre said. The city now uses a pay-and-display system of parking enforcement. Parking attendants look for a sticker or tag at several different locations on each vehicle and determine whether it’s valid. But by the end of June, Bourre said, Seattle Parking Enforcement will do everything by plate number, much like Galveston does at the Seawall. 

Besides improving enforecement, paperless parking offers management benefits as well, Bourre said. City officials can view the location of all parking attendants on a map by using GPS or see a visual history of where they ticketed vehicles and all the associated information that goes along with those events.

“They get better reports, more information, I think the parkers are more satisfied, they get a better service,” Bourre said. “At the end of the day, that’s what most of our customers want. They want people to pay for their parking.”

Gtechna’s systems include an error-detecting algorithm that the company claims can catch 99 percent of all errors when a plate is manually entered. About 1 percent of all plate entries are entered with an error, Bourre said.

The biggest barrier to adoption of ALPR technology is the accuracy of license plate readers, Bourre said. The current ALPR success rate for stationary cameras is about 93 percent, with lower rates for moving cameras. But 3M, which manufactures most of the license plates in North America, is testing a new technology in three states that could bring that figure to near 100 percent.

Most commonly LPR fails to accurately read a plate because the plate has been damaged, modified or covered with dirt. “The new license plate’s going to have an embedded 3-D barcode in the back of the license plate that will not be visible to the human eye, that will increase the character recognition of the plate for LPR,” Bourre said.

According to one Department of Justice study, if an LPR project is managed properly, it can be highly beneficial to law and parking enforcement agencies. According to the report, “Montgomery County [MD] Police Department […] has indicated that a single officer equipped with ALPR scanned 48,101 plates, resulting in the issuance of 255 traffic citations, the identification of 26 drivers with suspended licenses, 16 vehicle emission violators, 4 stolen and 1 expired license plate tags, and 3 arrests in the course of 96 hours of use over 27 days.”



Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.