Magazine

System Data Show Half of Meter Income Goes Uncollected

John Van Horn

The Port of San Francisco has a unique situation. They receive money from on-street meters and have a cap on the money they receive from enforcement efforts. Therefore, their goal is compliance.
How to get the people who park in the 1,000 on-street spaces they control to pay for the time they park?
The Port is currently in the middle of a study that combines the use of on-street monitoring with research into the use of multi-space and pay-and-display/space meters in about a fifth of its inventory. The goal, according to Tina Olson, Finance Director for the Port, is to determine the type of equipment they are going to buy, and to gain data about the parking and pay habits of their customers.
“We are finding that compliance varies from block to block, “ Olson told PT. “For instance, we get higher compliance in front of Gap headquarters than in an area down the street that is populated with shops and restaurants. We theorize that this is because business people visiting the Gap tend to pay the full amount of their parking fees, while visitors and tourists may only just put in the amount of change they have in their pockets. Business people tend to use credit cards far more frequently.”
The Port is getting its data from a system installed by Streetline Networks. The monitoring system uses devices that look like the reflectors you see between lanes. They contain a sensor and a transmitting device that enable the device to sense when a car arrives and leaves. These data are transmitted to a central processing system that correlates it and provides actual occupancy data.
“We are able to acquire data that [are] virtually impossible to get any other way,” says Streetline CEO Tod Dykstra. “We can provide the Port with information as to exactly how long a vehicle is in a space and how much money ‘should’ have been collected from that space. We can then compare that amount with the money that was actually collected and know which spaces overstayed and by how much.”
The payment information can be accurate down to the space when pay-by-space equipment is used, and is averaged over the collection period for single-space meters.
“With the pay-by-space units, we know when a space was paid and how much time was purchased,” Olson says. “We can compare that with the actual occupancy of that space and know precisely which spaces were overstayed. With the Port’s existing single-space meters, [those data aren’t] collected. We know an average of how much money was collected from a series of meters over a collection period.
In either case, the data collected by the system are important to Olson and her staff.
“We can begin to sort through what geography, time of day and even type of parker bring to bear on why people pay or don’t pay,” says Olson, “and then we can decide the best way to help our customers to come into compliance.”
The information collected by the system has another use. It can give enforcement agencies a leg-up on parkers. If the data show that a particular block face has a large number of parkers who overstay or don’t pay at all at certain times on certain days, enforcement can be directed toward those areas at those times.
The system uses a “mesh network” for communications. Each device talks to the device next to it, and, much like a bucket brigade, data are passed from device to device until reaching a point where the information can be picked up by a larger network and transmitted back to the central computer for correlation and storage.
“Our technology has its roots in DARPA research on low-power sensor networking,” says Dykstra. “We’ve developed it into real-world applications for parking management. Since these are machines talking to machines, a few seconds’ delay in getting the information back is perfectly acceptable. The radios are only on and transmitting when they have something to transmit. This means that the batteries that power the sensors have a much longer life [five to 10 years]. The data sent [are] much like that sent to a pager [fast bursts of small amounts of data].”
The technology behind the system has been peer-reviewed and, according to Dykstra, is solid. “When you use this type of system, you don’t have to upgrade or replace the existing meters. Our goal is to collect data and compare [that information] with the data from existing meters so you get a length of stay vs. amount paid. We can interface with the meters, if necessary.”
San Francisco is currently looking into why so little money is being collected from its meters. Less than half of the potential money that could be collected is finding its way into city coffers.
Olson says it’s a mystery, but handicapped permits may have something to do with it.
“There are twice as many handicapped parking permits issued in San Francisco as there are meters,” she says. “And disabled people park for free.”
As shown on the graph nearby, the amount of money collected in virtually all areas surveyed is half the amount that should have been collected based on the amount of time vehicles spent in the space.
“We think that increasing the different ways people can pay, including credit cards, will increase compliance,” Olson says. “However, we are still in the midst of our research. We will have more data in the upcoming months and will make decisions based on that data.”

Tina Olson can be reached at tina.olson@sfport.com, and Tod Dykstra at tod@streetlinenetworks.com.

Article Abstract from March, 2007




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