The Parking Authority of Baltimore City plans a pilot project to test a virtual parking permit system that eventually could allow it to ditch the current system of residential permit stickers and make enforcement more efficient.
The system would allow the city’s traffic enforcement officers to use license plate readers to see if people are parked legally, faster than the current method of checking each car for a sticker.
In a city where neighborhood parking causes quarrels in the snow and residents fight bike lanes to preserve precious parking spaces, a shortage of traffic enforcement officers has coincided with a 15 percent drop in the number of residential parking tickets in the past three years, according to the city Department of Transportation.
The virtual permit program, officials hope, would expand the officers’ reach — and eventually be used more widely with smart parking meters, doing away with the paper receipts short-term parkers place on their dashboards in favor of allowing people to pay by phone and be notified when their meters are running out.
“It’s going to allow enforcement to be a lot more efficient,” said Parking Authority Executive Director Peter Little.
The city is scheduled to pilot the program this fall in the Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood near Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
The program likely would require the city to purchase new license plate readers and handheld ticketing devices that could be synced to a live database of permitted license plates, said Frank Murphy, senior adviser at the Baltimore City Department of Transportation.
Those details — and an updated enforcement plan for the city’s 45 residential parking permit areas — are still in the works, and the cost hasn’t yet been determined, he said.
“We’re committed to making it work,” Murphy said.
The city Department of Transportation, which oversees parking enforcement, is “actively recruiting” to fill 26 vacancies for officers — 18 percent of the force. It now has 118 on the streets.
The shortage may explain the 15 percent decline in residential parking tickets. It also jibes with a recent South Baltimore Parking Study that found that people who parked in the area without residential permits were getting away with it.
Surveyors walked neighborhood streets, near one of the city’s most popular entertainment districts, and tallied the cars parked without a permit, said Brian Davis, a Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association board member and its parking chair. They followed up two hours later to see how many had been fined for overstaying their allotted time.
“Zero percent got a ticket,” Davis said. “A number of people are able to roll the dice and park their cars illegally because there’s practically no enforcement.”
Enforcement is time-consuming and geographically limited by the design of the current system, Little acknowledged.
Traffic enforcement officers must walk and examine each windshield for a residential permit. In areas where two-hour visitor parking is allowed, they must log a vehicle’s license plate number, then do a second sweep to see whether visiting vehicles overstayed their welcome.
“What the new technology is going to allow the city to do is drive along using mounted vehicle license plate readers,” Little said.
The program promises to save residential permit-holders time, too. Residents would be able to buy and renew virtual permits linked to their license plates online rather than visiting the Parking Authority or community pick-up centers at churches, schools and libraries once a year. Those without Internet access will have the option to get permits in-person at the Parking Authority.
Documentation, such as a lease or utility bill, would be submitted online, along with the vehicle’s registration, showing it is owned by someone living in the neighborhood.
“The license plate becomes your credential to park,” Little said.
In parking-scarce Ridgley’s Delight, where the pilot project will be run, a group of 30 to 50 neighbors likely will be the first to adopt virtual permits, said Sharon Reuter, president of the Ridgely’s Delight Neighborhood Association.
“Nobody likes change, and I think there’s going to be some adjustment to it,” she said. “But when the Parking Authority came to our community meeting, people were for it.”
While the ballpark doesn’t create many parking problems in the neighborhood, because zero-tolerance towing goes into effect during home games, many homes near the University of Maryland Medical Center don’t have off-street parking and must contend with hospital visitors for spots, Reuter said.
“That gray area gets negated,” she said.
David Johnson, who lives in parking-challenged Fells Point and sits on the city’s residential parking permit advisory board, said he likes the idea of virtual permits, but many of his neighbors are wary.
After hearing the city’s pitch at a meeting of the Fells Point Residents Association, he said, some worried about potential technological flaws; others doubted it would lead to more enforcement or were more comfortable with the known than the unknown. Most just don’t have confidence in the city’s ability to roll out a successful program.
“This being Baltimore,” Johnson said some murmured, “they’ll mess it up.”
The University of Maryland, College Park, was the first university to implement virtual parking permits, and it has used them for roughly the last decade, said David Allen, executive director of transportation services.
The university’s license plate readers cost $20,000 apiece, and it has outfitted four parking enforcement vehicles with two each — one pointed toward each side, he said. The system relies on a support staff of eight information technology workers who make sure it is updated and operating correctly.
“It is kind of IT-heavy,” Allen cautioned.
While the program has more or less eliminated permit fraud, it does carry pitfalls that could be problems in Baltimore, he said.
Sometimes the cameras have difficulty reading the plates of closely parallel-parked vehicles, and agents must always go back and double-check the license plate numbers in person, because the readers scan them correctly only about 80 to 85 percent of the time, he said.
“I thought we’d be able to cruise through the parking lot and it would ‘bing’ every time,” Allen said. “It’s not that perfect. We have to check each one. The last thing we want to do is write a ticket for someone who doesn’t deserve it.”
Privacy is another significant concern: Such a program, by nature, collects the license plates of every vehicle parked in an area at a given time, regardless of whether the vehicle is in violation, he said.
If a local government or university collects that data, it also has an obligation to release it upon request, he said. The university purges all non-violators’ license plate images from the system every 30 days, so as not to unnecessarily host a public, Orwellian level of data on the comings and goings on campus, Allen said.
“‘Where was this car at this time?’” he asked, hypothetically. “We know.”
Oakenshawe was the first neighborhood in Baltimore to experiment with residential parking permits in the 1970s, after neighbors complained about parking during events at the old Memorial Stadium.
Yet parking remains a problem there because the current enforcement doesn’t stop visitors to MedStar Union Memorial Hospital or Johns Hopkins’ Homewood Field from parking illegally in nearby neighborhoods, said George Atkinson, a board member of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association.
Atkinson, 61, who lives on Homewood Terrace and also serves as a residential parking permit advisory board member, said his neighbors largely support the proposal to make permits virtual. But they share the same concerns as those in Fells Point.
“It’s all going to come down to enforcement,” he said. “Having virtual permits is great; they should be able to cover a lot more ground. But it’s all about enforcement.”
Baltimore Sun research librarian Paul M. McCardell contributed to this article.