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The Globe and Mail

Cellphone parking a win-win for the mean streets of Toronto

Since an Oklahoma City social misfit named Carlton C. McGee invented the parking meter in 1935, car parking has become very big business. In 2010, the Toronto Parking Authority, which operates 38,234 parking spaces in 250 off-street facilities and 18,840 on-street spaces, posted a gross revenue of $116-million. To this tidy sum, parking enforcement police added another $78-million in levied fines. Not bad for a tax on property that belongs to you and me.

Since Mr. McGee's first cranky contraption hit the streets, there have been very few attempts to curb the growth or upgrade the system. Instead of a well-groomed urban landscape, parking authorities have seeded our sidewalks with meters that sprout faster than weeds and attract graffiti. Trigger-happy parking enforcers seem to spring out of nowhere, traffic court jams, streets become meaner. One notable exception occurred: In the mid-1990s when the authority replaced hundreds of rusty coin-operated meters with a new, improved "pay and display" system that took plastic.

But the fact that the parking business has become a quintessential overgrowth industry is perhaps less surprising than the burgeoning maintenance costs. Compare the $200-million gross revenue with the net revenue - less than $50-million.

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Whether there is a better way is a question cash-starved politicians in other jurisdictions began asking themselves some years ago. The city of Tel Aviv implemented a system that revolutionizes the way parking authorities do business. Cellphone parking, or CPP, is one of those rare win-win solutions that bridges the customer-business divide.

As for Toronto's annual $8.2-million cost of maintaining meters, CPP could eventually save the city the entire sum. Cellphone parking systems also collect data, provide a dozen police-related services, real time transparency, hugely improved public relations and greater overall revenue, which in part grows because CPP car owners who beforehand would not have paid for the quick in and out to a lover's or the liquor store, now no longer think such pit stops are worth risking a fine.

The conveniences are almost too obvious to enumerate. CPP reminds you that your time is running out; it lets you renew from a remote location; and you are charged only for the time you use.

"And that isn't the half of it," Naomi Omessi, a marketing executive at CelloPark Israel, said. "We have developed a green and paperless alternative. And we have programs that let police check not only parking status but permits and whether the car is properly insured, stolen, etc.," Ms. Omessi delivered her message with Zuckerberg-like ebullience. She talks as though CelloPark's 300,000 users are her intimate friends.

"Our system reduces the overall aggression quotient. And we have a system that reminds you that your virtual meter needs to be fed."

Thanks to Verrus/Paybyphone, the cellular answer to the meter has been introduced in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Whistler, White Rock and to the City of Richmond. When I asked Neil Podmore, director of marketing for Verrus, why he thought that Easterners are being forced to feed the meter in subzero conditions, he shrugged and said: "Maybe it's just that the East doesn't like to follow the West."

Mr. Podmore may be right, but we can hope that the extraordinary savings and convenience of the park-by-cell alternative will get the Toronto Parking Authority to realize that the winds of change are now blowing in from all sides.

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