Public Works: Use Your Phone To Pay For Parking
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Public Works: Use Your Phone To Pay For Parking

Online parking payments could eliminate the desperate rush to the meter.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

If you drive in Toronto, you already know the hassles: the perpetual gridlock, the widespread disregard for road etiquette, the unseemly interaction with lesser road users on bikes or in streetcars. And then, of course, there’s the always-looming question of where to park your two tonnes of chrome and hubris when you’re finally forced out of it.

Toronto doesn’t really lack pay parking, thanks in large part to the Toronto Parking Authority, which is responsible for around 17,500 on-street spaces, plus 160 parking lots under the Green P banner. What Toronto does lack is a more user-friendly way to manage all those spaces.

Geezers out there may remember when every on-street parking space had its own meter, and when parking garages had attendants who took your ticket and your money as you exited. This had the virtue of being relatively convenient for drivers, but less so for parking operators, who had to staff garages and drain change from thousands of parking meters.

Eventually garages started using technology that let them shed attendants by forcing drivers to walk to a ticket machine on exiting. For on-street parking, most individual meters have now been replaced with large machines—typically one every fifty metres or so—that dispense tickets to be left on dashboards.

This new system retains the inflexibility of being unable to change your parking time without returning to the vehicle, and it adds the indignity of having to walk up and down the street like a common pedestrian.

These days, however, technologies exist that dispense with that nuisance and also eliminate the need for motorists to race from hair appointments or heart surgery to top up their meters. These new systems allow people to purchase, add, or reduce parking time remotely, via their phones.

The technology isn’t even particularly new. The system most widely used in North America (including 13 Canadian cities) was originally developed by Verrus, a Vancouver-based company, back in 2001. (Verrus was acquired by U.K. internet payments provider PayPoint in 2010, and now operates as PayByPhone). Originally, registered users would call a number identifying the space where they were parked, and payment would be made with a credit card number on file.

With the advent of the smartphone, it’s now possible to do all this stuff online. Some cities will even send text messages to let users know when their time is almost up. (Remote-payment systems also provide parking enforcement officers with real-time lists of those who’ve paid online, which presumably allows them to ticket overdue vehicles with up-to-the-second accuracy. This is not advertised as a feature.)

Users pay a fee of 25 cents per transaction on top of the normal parking charge.

So why don’t we have this in Toronto? In fact, Impark, which operates some 60 lots, mostly in downtown Toronto, has the service available at some facilities. However, Green P, in spite of advertising campaigns that imply a puzzling belief that parking spot selection is based on brand loyalty rather than price and location, has yet to introduce anything similar.

It’s unclear why not. Back in September of 2011, Councillor and current TTC chair Karen Stintz came out in favour of adopting some kind of remote payment for parking. City council voted to have City staff look into the matter. Since then, there have been no public announcements on the topic. (Stintz and the Toronto Parking Authority had not yet responded to our questions about this by publication time.)

Remote parking payment is a good idea, and one that has been thoroughly tested elsewhere for more than a decade. Is it time to reopen the discussion?