Smart parking meters line Barnard Way near the beach. (Daniel Archuleta daniela@smdp.com)

DOWNTOWN — With any new technology, there are bound to be some bugs that need to be worked out.

Catiana Vitanza found that out the hard way when she and her family parked at one of Santa Monica’s new “smart” meters near the Main Library on a recent Sunday evening.

Instead of using coins or a credit card, Vitanza was curious and wanted to try out the new Parkmobile app advertised on the face of the meter head. The app allows users to pay for parking using a smartphone. The idea is that parkers will no longer have to carry change and can add more time remotely if they find themselves running late. The service also sends a text message to let people know how much time they have left.

It sounds convenient, but when Vitanza returned from dinner she found a parking ticket waiting for her.

“We just couldn’t believe it,” she said of the ticket. “We did everything right, it said the payment went through. It would have been easier for us to just put in our credit card. Thirty seconds and we’re done. Instead we spent 20 minutes signing up and it was such a disappointment.”

Vitanza said she felt a little uneasy when she saw the meter blinking red, as in expired. But she checked the Parkmobile website and it assured her that even if the meter didn’t register, parking enforcement would be able to confirm that she paid. Apparently that’s not the case.

Vitanza and her family fell victim to what Parkmobile Executive Vice President Laurens Eckelboom called “human error.”

Eckelboom said Parkmobile, an Atlanta-based company that has quickly become one of the largest providers of cashless parking systems in the U.S., incorrectly entered the wrong times that parking restrictions are enforced in that area. Instead of 9 p.m., Parkmobile believed the restrictions ended at 5 p.m. on Sundays. Therefore any payment made after that time would not register with the meter, leaving the parker vulnerable to being ticketed.

And that’s not the only problem. City Hall’s assistant finance director, Don Patterson, said there are some instances when communication between the mobile device and the meter is lost and the payment doesn’t register.

“It’s not happening at a particular meter or location, it’s just kind of random,” Patterson said. “It’s like a cell phone dropping a call.”

Patterson said the number of meters impacted is very small, about one complaint a week, or around a 3 to 4 percent failure rate. But the good news is that those who use Parkmobile can print out a receipt and send it, along with the citation number, to the Santa Monica Police Department and have parking tickets dismissed.

“Performance has been better, but we want to make sure we continue to improve,” said Patterson. “It’s meant to be a convenience and we will continue to work with the company to ensure it is. … Technology is great when it works.”

If the failure rate does not improve, City Hall could cancel the contract and go with a different provider, Patterson said.

“We can’t have this happening every week,” he said.

City Hall last year spent $4.5 million on the purchase and installation of 6,100 new parking meters with ground sensors that can send information back to city officials letting them know parking habits and the availability of parking. The sensors also zero-out meters after a car exits its spot, ending the practice of leaving time on a meter for the next parker.

City Hall expects to make $1.7 million more in parking meter revenue over the next year or so, according to a staff report.

Eckelboom even said Parkmobile will reimburse Vitanza if her ticket isn’t thrown out. He also assured Santa Monicans that the company will thoroughly review protocols and fix any issues that arise.

“In the end, we are doing hundreds of thousands of transactions a month and millions every year,” he said. “Chances of this happening again are very slim.”

His assurances do nothing for Vitanza, who said she will never use the app again.

“It seems like a very good idea, but it kind of defeats the purpose when it doesn’t work right,” she said.

Those who find themselves in a similar situation as Vitanza should contact City Hall’s parking office at parking.office@smgov.net or call (310) 458-8295. Patterson said e-mail is best so city officials can better track complaints.

 

kevinh@smdp.com

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