Magazine

Wireless Info and Ticketing System

City Automates Parking Enforcement

Steve Campbell

Parking enforcement is one of the most paper-intensive activities in city management. From enforcement officers working on the streets to clerical staff and management in the back room, there is little doubt that many experienced city government employees spend too much time shuffling paper when their know-how could be of more use applied to tasks that deliver a higher return.
Automating the ticketing and enforcement system can reduce or eliminate the paper-shuffling workload. In addition, enabling this automated system with real-time wireless two-way connectivity with the central databank of ticket and permit records can connect enforcement officers on the streets with a large library of information, making them much more productive. This was the City of Vancouver's intention when it automated its parking management system and "went live" this past year with a real-time information network.
The business case for the Vancouver system was compelling. In an analysis produced by city staff for review by the city council, a net annual benefit of $235,000 was estimated over the first six years of the system. After that, the benefit would rise to $393,000 per annum -- an excellent return on the initial investment.
The analysis anticipated the elimination of three key-punch positions (out of four) for transcribing handwritten parking tickets. It also projected a higher volume of valid tickets, increased ticket payment rates, and fewer meter violations. City staff believe the capital cost of the equipment purchased could be paid back in as little as three years, leading to a potential net present value to the city of $1 million over a six-year time span. While the early returns from the system's first period of operation are not yet in, the system has proven its worth in the field handily.
"This is an easy-to-use system that utilizes handheld 'personal digital assistants' (also known as PDAs) and a real-time information system that eliminates much of the paper and manual data entry from the ticketing back-end system," said Ralph Yeomans, Vancouver's manager of parking operations and enforcement.
$5.7 million
Over a one-year period, 100 enforcement officers issued approximately 400,000 citations worth some $5.7 million (U.S.) in fines.
"We believed our bylaw officers would welcome a real-time system because it eliminates or reduces clerical tasks and frees them up to focus their attention on more important tasks," said Brent Heisler, handheld supervisor/coordinator for the city's program. "The other side was giving staff real-time access on the street to our ticketing, permit and vehicle databases, which has given them the power and knowledge to make better decisions on the street while they're working."
The new system consists of 81 handheld SPT 1733 handheld PDAs and printers produced by Symbol Technologies. Epic Data, a manufacturer of wireless automatic data collection systems, provided the ticket-management software -- TicketManager -- and consulted on the system setup, implementation and operation.
In this system, all of the ticket information, vehicle infraction history and residential permit parking registrations are stored on a central TicketManager server that is accessed in real time by the enforcement officers via PDAs and the local cellular network. To begin, they simply enter a license plate. A series of drop-down menus on the PDAs and automatic fill-in of repetitive information make completion of enforcement notices convenient and efficient. This eliminates the previous time-consuming and error-prone task of batch-processing handwritten tickets at the end of the day. In addition, this system makes available -- via the handheld unit -- a wealth of parking department information that enables the enforcement officers to do a more effective job.
Increased compliance
In Vancouver, the days of repeat offenders ignoring tickets and summons are coming to an end. The parking operations branch counts approximately 9,000 vehicle owners who have five or more tickets outstanding. The cost of tracking and prosecuting these unpaid tickets is high.
Already, revenues from the court cases section (cases that will be taken to court if the ticket is not paid) are up $300,000.
Parking operations employees believe the reason for this increased compliance is the automatic flagging of vehicles with five or more tickets. Once an offending car's license plate number is punched into the system and identified as a repeat violator, by the simple act of pressing a button on the handheld unit, a tow truck can be ordered to impound the vehicle immediately. Or, a summons officer can be asked to serve the owner with a court summons upon their return.
"We found that once parking violators became aware our enforcement officers have the information available to track and immediately tow repeat violators who don't pay their fines, they are far less interested in ignoring their tickets," notes Heisler. "It's an interesting and unexpected side benefit to the system."
Illegal use reduced
Residential parking permits is another area in which non-compliance or evasion was occurring. In this situation, residents living in communities with limited on-street parking can apply for a residential parking permit to enable them to use nearby "resident-only" street parking. Unfortunately, some of those who already have underground parking will apply for a parking permit anyway, and then sell it to someone else who needs to park in that area (such as employees of area businesses) and wants to avoid paying off-street monthly parking fees.
Vancouver's parking department staff estimates that 15 percent of all permits are illegally resold in this way, allowing outsiders to infringe on the parking rights of legitimate permit-holders.
Previously, enforcement officers had no way of knowing if a parking permit was registered to the vehicle displaying it; only hunches would help them uncover this illegal usage. The result was that only one violator per week was caught. Now, under the new system, the officer can punch in a license plate and find out quickly if that vehicle is registered as the official owner of the permit. The same applies to the use of commercial, disabled and exemption permits.
The results have been impressive: on average, enforcement officers now discover and tow 10 vehicles per day using preferred permits illegally.
Easier connections
In the new system, enforcement officers ticket the car and enter the information electronically. The car's information is sent immediately to the police computer system via a secure one-way transmission, and comparisons can be performed automatically to look for matches with the list of missing, stolen or wanted vehicles. When the system recognizes a match, it alerts the police to attend and physically examine the vehicle. Simultaneously, TicketManager informs the parking officer if the vehicle or its owner is a bylaw offender.
To cut down on future system abuse, details on every vehicle the branch comes into contact with are recorded in TicketManager server's secure database. Take "courtesy cancellations" of tickets as an example. If someone's car has broken down and they plead their case to the enforcement officer, they are often spared a ticket and given a chance to deal with the disabled vehicle. If another officer comes by later and the parker has failed to remove the vehicle but requests another cancellation, inputting the vehicle license into the computer will bring up the entire vehicle record, including the previous courtesy cancellation.
Further, if a vehicle owner has been threatening or abusive toward parking staff in the past, this can be flagged in the notes section of the handheld unit. Officers can then be more careful around the vehicle and even choose not to place the printed ticket on the windshield prior to towing, filing it electronically instead. With the entire parking staff connected to the system at all times, it also becomes easier for staff to keep track of each other and provide assistance in an emergency.
There is a law in Vancouver prohibiting parking at broken meters. The TicketManager system enables the parking branch to keep track of repeat violators, and also business owners who monopolize spots directly in front of their stores.
Improved service
While no one likes receiving a ticket, the new system improves service for those who do. "In the old system, when people received a ticket, they would phone in immediately to protest, not realizing our customer service people wouldn't receive the particulars until the next day at the earliest -- after the officer had come back to work, dropped off the paper tickets and had them inputted by hand that night," said Heisler. "Now, the information is available right away, and we can discuss the details with the customer."
Still, the new system has not been without its bugs. For instance, it was discovered that the ticket printer required a certain type of synthetic paper in order to work at maximum efficiency. And some of the older employees who were used to dealing with paper tickets were reluctant to try the new service initially. As they watched other enforcement officers get used to the system, however, most eventually came on board and took the training. Today, all enforcement officers with the exception of one who is nearing retirement are using the handheld units. This successful adoption was due in large part to the fact that training was not made mandatory for staff.
"There is little doubt TicketManager has improved our enforcement officers' personal safety and ability to deal efficiently with non-compliance, not to mention energized their work," concludes Ralph Yeomans. "It's a valuable 'real-time' system that we fully recommend to other city or town governments for their bylaw enforcement programs."
For the future, Vancouver is also looking at other applications for the real-time technology. These include allowing parkers to pay their meter charges by ordering time over their cell phones as they park, and futuristic new handheld units with scanners incorporated that can take a picture of the car and its parking violation. In the meantime, the city is reaping the benefits of today's technologies in the form of improved system productivity and employee satisfaction -- and enjoying the significant benefits that occur when automated data capture eliminates non-essential paper-pushing.

Steve Campbell is a technical writer based in Vancouver. He can be reached at campbellpr@shawbiz.ca

Article Abstract from February, 2003




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