Soon there will be no more fumbling for a crinkled ticket buried in a purse or straining outside the driver’s window to wave a proximity card in Santa Barbara’s public parking lots.
The city is one more step away from replacing in-person kiosks at public lots with Automated License Plate Recognition systems, which simply read each entering car’s license plate to determine how long the cars used the parking space.
If parkers use the parking lot within the allotted complimentary time (example: 75 minutes), the gate will automatically open when they exit. If they exceed the allowed time, the system will charge whatever amount is due, and parkers can just pay with their credit card.
On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council voted unanimously to install these systems at the downtown, waterfront and airport parking lots. The final step before installation now is receiving council approval of the equipment, which will cost around $500,000.
“We don’t like to do things until the technology is really proven,” said Rob Dayton, the city’s transportation planning and parking manager. “It’s something that’s used pretty universally in the parking world these days and it’s gotten really good in terms of the technology.”
He told the News-Press the systems are a customer service enhancement, because out of 5 million tickets a year for the parking systems in Santa Barbara, 60% end up being complimentary.
In addition, the Paseo Nuevo Mall parking garage already utilizes an ALPR system with mounted cameras.
“Initially, it’s expensive, but labor is more expensive than the cameras over time,” Mr. Dayton said. “The downtown parking system has been slowly generating less and less revenue for a couple different reasons. One is we have less parkers downtown as the economic status of downtown has waned. The other thing is that the cost of running the parking business has gone up, particularly because of the minimum wage in California.”
During the pandemic, the city’s parking system lost $2.5 million. On top of that loss, Mr. Dayton said that the uncertainty of what happens after COVID-19 is another reason the city wants to implement these systems.
“Some of the research shows that some people may not open their offices again and they’ll switch to an online format or platform for office employees, which could lower our customers even further,” he said.
He said city staff wants to ensure the downtown parking system is able to pay for itself and be financially solvent.
However, the issue of data collection and privacy comes into play with the license plate readers. The council discussed parkers’ private information protection at length during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The policy the council proposed creates a firewall between the people who are officially responsible for the private data, which would be the downtown parking staff, and any kind of law enforcement,” Mr. Dayton said. “No law enforcement entity can come and say, ‘Hey, we want to come and look at who came in your lot.’ The policy says they can’t do that unless they have a court order to do that, and that would be a subpoena.”
Members of the council also asked that the data be dumped after a certain amount of time.
For downtown parking lots, the information will be dumped 72 hours after someone leaves the facility, and for the airport and waterfront lots, information will be purged after 30 days. Mr. Dayton said this gives courts time to respond and ask for data through subpoenas.
Mayor Cathy Murillo told the News-Press the provisions protect parkers’ privacy, and the council will conduct quarterly audits of the system.
“We are very careful moving to automation in certain city operations,” she said. “When we can save substantial tax dollars, we will do that. In the case of parking lots, we do not want to raise rates or do away with free parking.”
So what happens to the kiosketeers now that automation is replacing them? Mr. Dayton said their employment with the city is still safe.
“The employees that are in the booths would move to other roles in downtown parking systems,” he said. “The whole transition is probably six months to a year, so as we have the equipment installed, tested and practiced, there will need to be people in the booth monitoring and helping the public understand how to use it and get them dialed in.
“Kiosketeers are just amazing people. People have a really great experience with them,” he continued. “It’ll be difficult to see that culture leave the parking system because it’s been a really good thing for downtown Santa Barbara. The challenge is the financial solvency of the system.”