Magazine

Photo Violation Makes Splash in Niagara Falls

John Van Horn

I spent a morning recently with Fred Mitschele, President of Photo Violation Technologies, and some of his technical staff. They are beginning a test of 100 PVT machines in Niagara Falls, NY.
I am a skeptic of all new equipment and frankly don’t like to review it or run articles until it has been in the field for a bit and “how it runs in the lab” is confirmed by “how it runs in the field.”
But Fred is like the Borg – he is relentless. You have seen him and his equipment at every trade show, on television, in the papers, and in tests in a number of cities including Vancouver, Canada, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others across the continent.
This is his first roll-out for a major test. Let’s face it: It’s news.
Fred is the first to admit that his product isn’t perfect yet. But he notes that PVT has corrected a lot of flaws – not only in concept and technology, but also in design – to make it better for owners and users alike. Most of these changes, Fred says, came from the field tests he has been running across the continent.
Niagara Falls is the first real multi-unit test for PVT’s photo violation meter. Here’s what I found.
The meter combines the features from at least four different technologies into one unit. Whether this is good or not, I can’t say. I can only say that if it works as advertised – it offers the cities a lot of flexibility.
Fred Mitschele says he came up with the concept of a “friendly” parking meter based on his own experience. He didn’t like the fact that, first of all, he couldn’t pay with a credit card; second, he couldn’t feed the meter; third, he had to come back to the meter to feed it; and fourth, if he overstayed and deserved a ticket, that he had to fill out a form, write a check and mail a letter.
The design, from a parker’s point of view, resolved all these issues. It gives a lot of choices, maybe too many, but then each of the features can be disabled if the owner desires.
Let’s start with payment – you can use coin, cash, credit or debit card. If pay-by-cellphone is available in the community, you can use that, too. When you go to the meter and use a credit card, you can choose the amount of time you want, pay for just what you use, or, to ensure you don’t get a ticket, pay for as long as you stay in the spot.
The “puck” sensor in each space knows when you arrived and when you leave and tells the meter these little tidbits. If you don’t pay at all, or overstay your welcome, the meter takes a picture of your license and a nice customer service person mails you a ticket.
Wow, that’s great. However, there was, I thought, a fatal flaw. What if someone simply covers the camera or parks so the machine can’t see the license plate? Mitschele has an answer. If the camera can’t get a valid picture (and resolve the license plate number through its LPR system), the system immediately notifies the enforcement officer in the area to drop by and handle the situation manually.
What? I thought this was supposed to replace the enforcement team. No, says Mitschele, it makes them more effective. Some are working inside mailing out citations. Others work the streets, but are now focused on exactly the places they are needed, such as cars parked in red zones, scofflaws, and folks who don’t believe the fact that you shouldn’t park in front of a fire hydrant.
If you do overstay and return to the meter to find yourself in violation, you can pay your ticket right on the spot by credit card. “Cities think this is great,” Mitschele says. “It reduces the collection effort, and in some cases, they have talked about giving a reduction in the fine if it’s paid at the meter.
“Our goal is to make the entire process friendlier and ensure that the money for the actual parking is collected, and thus turn violation income back into actual monies collected for legitimate parking. If you make the process easier for the parker, they are more apt to pay.
“In the tests we have done, we have found that over half of on-street parkers never pay and the vast majority don’t get a citation. (We know this because we track the car entering and leaving with the ‘puck.’) We also found that many parkers simply gamble that they won’t be ticketed. With the photo feature of the meter, we let people know they will be ticketed every time if they don’t pay, so they do.
“We have been shocked at how the compliance rate has increased.” (Mitschele gave me some numbers, and they were impressive. However, I’ll wait until more data are in before reporting on them.)
Of course, the city can decide how they want to program the meters. If they want turnover, they can give no grace period or limit the amount of time that can be put on the meter. If they are concerned about visitors (like Niagara Falls, for instance), they can elect to allow a grace period and let people park as long as they wish, as long as they pay. Or, as Mitschele points out, they can have any combination, and it can change by time of day, day of the week, or meter by meter.
His company has partnered with two powerhouses in the electronics field, IBM and Cisco. IBM is providing hardware and software support, and Cisco is bringing its wi-fi broadband program to the party.
Wi-fi? That’s how these meters communicate, over a broadband Internet signal. Cisco has been looking for a way to approach municipalities with its wi-fi product. Cities like the idea of “free” Internet access for its citizens, but usually don’t like the cost. With this program, they get the system paid for by the parking installation. And the parking system gets its communication network.
Cost? Mitschele laughs. So far, he is giving them away for free (the tests), but he hopes to be charging soon. In any case, he says the increase in revenue generated should pay for the system in less than six months.
I can only wish him well. But time will tell the tale. Life is much different on the streets than in the lab, as Mitschele can attest.
“Most of our problems have been facing issues that we thought would be handled by the customer,” he says. “For instance, in many cases we are powered by nearby street lighting. We were told that the poles were always powered with the lights controlled with photo cells. However, on the street, we found that they were every which way and many were on timers. We use photo cells, but some are under trees. It’s a complicated process.
“Here in Niagara Falls, they are changing many of the streets,” Mitschele says. “They tell us to install meters on a certain street, and then the next week they replace the sidewalks and we have to install them all over again,” he says with a laugh.

You can read more about the PVT system at www.photoviolation.com.

Article Abstract from September, 2007




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