Downtown San Jose’s ‘smart’ parking meters have one big flaw
I have bad news to impart today that probably won’t shock you: San Jose’s smart parking meters aren’t as smart as they think. You could safely accuse them of jumping to conclusions.
Installed last year to provide credit-card convenience for parkers — and more money for the city — they have one big flaw. Some of them reset to zero when a heavy truck passes.
Unfortunately, a lot of big trucks rumbled by this year close to the new courthouse being built at Market and St. James streets. That has led to a spate of faulty $40 parking tickets, a quiet but invidious little bite often paid unquestioningly by visitors to downtown.
To its credit, the city acknowledged the problem when I asked about it, saying it has disabled the reset function for a dozen meters near the courthouse and a downtown bus stop.
“We’re looking closely with our vendor to get this fixed,” said Jim Ortbal, the assistant director of transportation. “We absolutely don’t want this to happen to anyone visiting our town.”
But the city is depending on people to report faulty tickets themselves. And if you ask me, that’s not good enough.
While city officials insist that the faulty tickets are issued in only a tiny fraction of cases, my own research — looking at 200 sequential city parking tickets — suggests the problem is larger. About 6 percent of the tickets are being dismissed, most of them after protests from parkers.
Many people just pay the $40 and don’t question the fine. After all, the city requires you to write a note and explain your plight. Some drivers decide the battle isn’t worth it.
“I paid two tickets I thought I was losing my mind on,” said Lisa Tymcio, a paralegal who initially thought the city’s judgment was better than hers. While she has not formally complained about those two, she is contesting a third she received recently.
Or consider the case of Todd Rothbard, a San Jose lawyer who specializes in eviction cases. On Feb. 25, Rothbard had a trial in downtown Superior Court.
Knowing that the case would extend beyond the 11 a.m. meter expiration, Rothbard sent his associate, Selven Anderson, to put another hour’s worth of quarters (eight) into the meter (the new ones still let you pay the old-fashioned way).
When he got to his car around 11:30 a.m., Rothbard found a ticket that had been issued at 11:08. He was furious with Anderson. How hard could it be to find the right meter for the car?
The next morning, however, the same thing happened. Rothbard says he loaded his meter with 16 quarters that would take him from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. When he got out of court, he found a ticket on his windshield, issued at 10:15 a.m. He knew he would have to apologize to his associate.
“Had it only been the first citation, I would have paid it simply to avoid the time and trouble of contesting it,” Rothbard wrote the city. He called two tickets in two days “outrageous.”
The predicament has gotten so devilish that savvy parkers downtown have adopted the safeguard of taking a photo of their parking meter once they’ve fed the bandit.
“If we get a ticket, we send a copy of that along with the ticket and challenge it,” says Gene Jorgens, another San Josean who has been unfairly ticketed. “Forty dollars is a lot to pay for parking when you’ve already paid for it.”
So what’s the core of the problem? When the city switched over to smart parking meters from San Diego-based IPS Group for 1,200 downtown spaces a year ago, it embedded sensors in the pavement that can tell when a car moves out.
When that happens, the meter automatically sets back to zero, depriving the next parker of the bonus of extra time. You can see how this benefits the city over the long run.
The problem, city officials say, is that the sensor can also be affected by a heavy truck or bus passing by. Hence, people face Rothbard’s plight: They’re not losing their minds. They are losing the time for which they’ve paid.
Rothbard says the technology exists for parking enforcers to check whether people have already fed the meter properly. The city’s Ortbal says that would probably require a complex database.
Don’t forget: Parking is big business in a city that needs the money. City reports show that parking revenues have increased by 44 percent over the last decade.
Doubling the price of downtown meters, which happened when smart meters went in, will inevitably bring in more money. San Jose now takes in more than $10 million yearly in parking fines.
My take on this? Disabling the reset function on a dozen meters is a start. But after looking through citations that have been reversed, I’m not convinced the culprits are limited to a dirty dozen. Waiting for people to complain is disingenuous.
The city shouldn’t issue faulty tickets in the first place, for whatever reason. If that means making every meter dumber, I’ll stand and applaud for mediocrity.