Netflix proved a few years ago that providing easy and affordable access to TV shows and movies was a good way to counter piracy. It turns out the same basic principle applies to parking.
Parking tickets are down by nearly a third in Toronto since the full rollout of the Green P mobile app, which lets drivers use their smartphones instead of street meters to pay for public parking spots.
Slightly more than 200,000 tickets were issued in the 10 months after street parking was added to the app in October of 2016, according to Toronto Police Service. That represents a 29-per-cent decline from 261,000 tickets in the 10 months prior. The app had been deployed in limited manner with Green P parking lots in March of 2015.
"[It's] most likely due to convenience, no need for change or credit card, the expense reports available for reimbursement on application and e-mail notification when time is due to expire," says Brian Moniz, parking enforcement supervisor for Toronto Police. "There's much more compliance."
By the city's account, the app is a success. Not only are tickets down at Green P's 40,000 street and lot spaces, acceptance by drivers has been high. About one-third of all Green P transactions are being made through the app.
Most cities with similar apps have seen adoption levels in the single digits, according to Ian Maher, vice-president of strategic planning and IT for Toronto Parking Authority, which runs the Green P spaces. Toronto's high acceptance is the result of the Green P app being intuitive and easy to use, as well as a general tech-savviness among drivers, he says. "We have a lot of people who are app crazy."
Developed by Charlotte-based Passport Inc., the app has users enter their parking location's numerical code, which is found on curbside meters. They then select the desired amount of time and the corresponding fee is deducted from the money they load into their account via a credit card. The app sends a notification when time is about to expire and allows for extensions if necessary.
On the enforcement side, officers can look up a licence plate number on a hand-held device to see if a car is paid up, or check a location ID for an overall list of authorized vehicles in a specific area.
Vancouver and Victoria recently introduced similar Passport-designed apps. Montreal is also in the process of redeploying a new app created by the North Carolina company after a previous effort failed to gain widespread acceptance, Mr. Maher says.
Other North American cities have experienced similar declines in parking tickets thanks to mobile apps. In Boston, for example, tickets from expired or unpaid meters dropped 10 per cent after its app was introduced in 2015.
The apps do have one downside for cities. Overall revenue from parking in Toronto, for example, has taken a hit since the Green P app's full rollout, by $1.5-million or 1 per cent, with the increased money at the meters not quite offsetting the lost fine income. But it's "an excellent trade-off for more compliance," says Anthony Fabrizi, manager of revenue services at City of Toronto.
Mobile apps and the associated shifts in driver behaviour represent a major disruption to the way parking works in cities, according to Sunil Johal, policy director at the Mowat Centre in the school of public policy and governance at the University of Toronto.
As it stands, parking is a poorly constructed marketplace that requires customers to engage in a lot of guesswork – from where and when spots might be available, to how much they might cost, to how long they might be needed.
Smartphone apps are the first step toward introducing some certainty.
"Technological innovation can help make this marketplace more transparent," Mr. Johal says. "The marketplace is finally being brought into the 21st century."
The next step, he adds, is likely to be dynamic pricing – or the ability for municipalities to change parking rates more quickly based on availability and demand.
San Francisco, for example, has been experimenting with the concept for the past few years and is set for wider rollout this year.
The ultimate goal, Mr. Maher says, is to have sensors on the street that can relay spot availability to drivers in real time through parking apps, which would in turn allow municipalities to change rates at times of high or low demand.
Toronto has the ability to change rates relatively quickly with the Green P app, but the sensor technology and associated data that is needed to provide spot availability is still at least a few years away.
"Most of it isn't even ready to be tested yet, but it's something we're definitely keeping our eyes on," Mr. Maher says.
In the meantime, Toronto is planning to introduce a new feature through the Green P app next year that will provide drivers with parking spot availability estimates in specific locations based on historical data.