If you drive in this city, you’ve probably been in one of these two situations: One, too cheap to pay for parking, you go to a side street and take advantage of one-hour free parking. But having stayed a little longer than an hour, you find a $30 ticket on your windshield.
Two, en route to an important business meeting, you park on a main street. When you pay at one of those solar-powered payment machines you are forced to gaze into the crystal ball and estimate how long your stay will be. You pay for 90 minutes but your meeting goes a few minutes late. You come out and have a $30 ticket on your windshield.
I’ve been in both situations several times. Once I got a ticket after being stuck in a waiting line at Metro Hall. It was a bitter pill—the reason I was there in the first place was to dispute an earlier parking ticket.
Inflexible city parking is also one of Bern Grush’s pet peeves. An outspoken transportation consultant, Grush has been in the pages of the Toronto Star before.
As founder of Toronto-based vehicle metering start-up Skymeter, he has been a vocal advocate of using GPS satellite-tracking technologies and sophisticated software to charge drivers for the number of kilometres they travel, with the fee based on when they drive and where they go.
Earlier this year, I hitched a ride with Grush after leaving a downtown conference. As we cruised across the city, he drew attention to how the municipality was throwing money out the window by undercharging for some parking spots and being too rigid with the rules.
In his view, Toronto could generate millions of dollars a year in additional revenues, reduce vehicle emissions, and make drivers happier by simply managing its parking inventory more efficiently. This could be done using the same technology that Skymeter uses for pay-as-you-go driving.
Free one-hour street parking is a waste, he said, adding that most drivers would gladly pay a reasonable fee for the convenience of such spots. What drivers don’t like is getting ticketed just because they parked for longer than an hour, even if just by a minute.
That’s why motorists often avoid these one-hour spots, and end up driving around the block several times looking for a less risky and reasonably priced alternative – burning fuel in the process.
Why not charge an additional fee beyond that hour, and have the fee increase gradually as more time passes?
If you’ve ever driven a car-share vehicle, you’ll know the technology exists to do this automatically. Essentially, it would be an iTunes-like model. Sign up, put your credit card on file, and get a monthly bill reflecting your parking charges.
No need to dig for change in the glove compartment, and no need to rush out of that restaurant or meeting for fear of getting a ticket.
Like pay-as-you-go driving and pay-as-you-drive insurance schemes, parking fees could also be adjusted for location and time of day – a premium charge for rush hour, for example—to control congestion in certain parts of the city.
The municipality, meanwhile, would no longer need a costly fleet of parking enforcement officers driving around streets chalking tires. The same approach could eventually apply to metered spots on main streets and at Green P lots.
Studies have shown, said Grush, that motorists place top value on four things when it comes to parking: ease of finding a spot, avoiding tickets, convenient method of payment, and reasonable cost – in that order.
“The scheme I describe satisfies all four,” he said. “This approach can bring a lot of value to Toronto – city finances, drivers, congestion, air, sanity and retailers.”
Whenever this idea of GPS-based vehicle tracking comes up, it inevitably draws legitimate concerns about privacy. After all, you’ll have a black box in your car that follows you around all day.
Obviously, securing the data that is collected and following key privacy protection principles would be a minimum requirement. But Grush said another way to ease concerns is to make the service and the added convenience it offers voluntary.
It is human nature – people don’t like being forced to do things, and when they are, most are suspicious. But make it voluntary and no problem, suddenly you’ve got nearly a billion active Facebook users and hundreds of millions of iPhone-toting consumers signing up to location-based apps.
Under Grush’s scheme, it’s best to think of your vehicle as just a big smart phone on wheels, and pay-as-you-park services as just another app that makes your daily routine a bit easier.
I’d sign up.
Now, some might shake their heads and say the focus should be on reducing the number of vehicles on our streets, not making it easier for people to park. True, we need to get more people taking transit, cycling and walking, but cars are here to stay.
The challenge is to reduce their impact as much as we can and accommodate them in a way that keeps the city both functional and a more enjoyable place to live and work.