Miami's Parking App Obsession Has Unforeseen Consequences

Jul 11, 2018

Parking in Miami was once a simple task: bring some change, maybe a few dollars to hand to the parking attendant, park your car, leave and return. But those days are long gone.

Enter the world of electronic parking apps, the new frontier of convenience. In 2008, the city of Miami became the first major U.S. city to start accepting mobile payments for parking. Since then, the city has been at the forefront of transitioning the parking experience from street meters to an electronic app called PayByPhone, a Canada-based app owned by Volkswagen -- the largest carmaker in the world.

In a press release issued in January, the Miami Parking Authority said as much.

“Since the inception of PayByPhone, the Miami Parking Authority has eliminated 50 percent of the multi-space machines and 99 percent of the on-street single-space meters,” the press release boasted. It goes on to credit its wholesale adoption of the PayByPhone app as making the Miami Parking Authority “the largest parking organization in the United States and the second largest globally relative to PayByPhone transaction volume.” Together, this has “positioned Miami as a leader in parking innovation nationally and globally.”

Other cities in the region -- Fort Lauderdale and Coral Gables -- have also adopted the technology.

Proponents tout the app's ease of use and convenience. Users can be in the middle of a meeting or lunch and extend parking without having to leave their seat. And the fewer meters the city runs, the more money it saves on sending staff out for machine maintenance and money collections.

But amid a push to move the city's parking infrastructure to PayByPhone, Miami has stumbled into questions about the ethics of forcing people onto digital spaces that for some reason or another might not always be accessible. Separately, there are questions about what exactly is being done with the data drivers are handing over to utilize the most simple of municipal services: parking on the street.

A number of people report receiving parking tickets after being unable to pay for parking due to the app being unaccesible. And a leading digital privacy watchdog group says that serious issues come into play when migrating city services to a privately-owned third-party app, and that those issues have not yet been explored.

For instance, the app’s Terms of Service makes it clear that it shares data with law enforcement and other government agencies.

“We need to be careful that we aren’t assisting the government in helping them have third-parties do their dirty work for them,” says Rebecca Jeschke, a digital analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a California-based privacy rights watchdog group.

Neither Volkswagen nor PayByPhone responded to requests for comment about data sharing practices.

Across the street from the WLRN studios, Jo Etienne recently stared up at a street sign, forehead crinkled in frustration as she held her phone before her face. There were no street meters in sight. She was trying to pay for parking through the app. 

“We can’t get in with the app so I’m attempting to do it over the phone, which is just -- so much work. It could be easier,” said Etienne. “There’s some areas when you come downtown and they have the machines, which is easier. Like if you go down by the courthouse for example. They have the machine where you can just use your card and do everything there and then.”

Etienne was in the city from Miami Gardens, heading to a friend's high school graduation at the Adrienne Arsht Center. She was already late, but spent almost 20 minutes trying to download the app, get it to work, and calling the posted phone number before giving up and walking away.

“I’m just gonna go,” she said, “because even on the phone is a hassle.”

Etienne was lucky: she didn't get a ticket that day. 

The issue is partly by design. The Miami Parking Authority has expanded the reach of paid street parking in many areas, while reducing the number of street meters, or even leaving none in place. 

“It really depends on the neighborhood and where we think the utilization is high where we can start to eliminate the equipment,” said Art Noriega, the chief executive officer of the Miami Parking Authority. “If we could transition to a totally virtual platform, I would,” he said. But pockets of the city with a more elderly population and the reality of many tourists coming into town will never allow it to happen.

About cases like Etienne's, he said: “For every one story like that, there’s probably 50 to 100 stories that are positive. We certainly have taken the perspective that I don’t want anybody to get frustrated by it.”

PayByPhone gets $0.35 in fees for every transaction it manages in the city of Miami. In 2014, the Miami Parking Authority started absorbing that cost for drivers, incentivizing them to use the app more.

Technology is clearly moving in the direction of mobile apps for parking, Noriega stressed. A full 88 percent of parking transactions in the city are taking place over PayByPhone.

“There’s so many other cities around the country that look to us in terms of this [PayByPhone] program, how we set it up, how we marketed it,” said Noriega. “PayByPhone ... actually uses us quite a bit to assist them to educate other cities on the benefits of how to implement the program.”

Miami Parking Authority CEO Art Noriega.
Credit Daniel Rivero / WLRN

Yet pushing people to the app presumes that users have a working smartphone and a credit card, which not everyone has.

Eric Gonzalez is a Sustainability and the Environment major at Florida International University and a bike mechanic at Shark Valley in Everglades National Park. Late last year he said he was kicked off the PayByPhone app because he had an older model of an iPhone that was no longer supported. As a result he couldn’t pay for parking, and he got two tickets he blames on not being able to access the app. He said the city’s parking policy indirectly played a role in him having to buy a new cell phone.

“Parking traditionally with cash, it would be a $1.50 an hour. But with PayByPhone app it basically makes parking $1.50 an hour, plus a $350 phone,” said Gonzalez. “It really ties the hands of a lot of people, including people like myself. I’m young, I don’t have too much money to spend on things like phones, but I essentially had to.”

Juan Diaz, a Miami resident, told WLRN that the "app wouldn't load after trying for over 30 minutes" during a recent trip to the Wynwood neighborhood. He parked anyway and got a ticket. 

It’s the exclusive use of the app in certain areas that is a red flag for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“They’re collecting the license plate, the location, and your name with a credit card,” said Jeschke. “When you centralize all that information in one app, that’s what makes it concerning. It’s a honeypot. It’s easier for people to start seeing things.”

Data for users who have regular meetings or appointments and pay for parking through the app can be revealing. She fears data could be used not only by authorities in criminal cases, but in things like divorce proceedings, since data can be mapped out to show parking habits.

There’s precedent for this, she warned. In 2007, it was revealed that data gathered from the E-Z Pass bridge crossings in New York City was being used in divorce cases to show when partners were being unfaithful. And Jeschke pointed to a California-based license plate reading company that earlier this year finalized a data-sharing contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that handles deportations.

PayByPhone’s privacy policy states that the company sends information “to police, security forces, competent governmental, intergovernmental or supranational bodies, competent agencies, departments or regulatory, self-regulatory authorities or organisations or other third parties.” It also provides information “in response to any subpoena, summons, court or administrative order, or other legal process" which it believes requires compliance.

Noriega, of the Miami Parking Authority, repeatedly denied that the city is forcing people to give up their parking data to a third-party.

“I don’t think that we’re forcing anyone to do anything,” he said. “First of all, to get into the app and use it you have to agree to the terms of service.”

When asked about parts of the city where there are no parking meters, he said, “I’m pretty sure that if we walked out there I could find you a machine within pretty close proximity," but later didn't respond to a request to do so.

A map sent to WLRN from his office displaying the four parking zones in the area where Etienne was unable to find street meters tells another story. Two of the street parking zones have no meters. The two other zones are less than half covered by parking meters.

Noriega said he could not respond to questions about the right course of action for what to do when someone's phone battery dies while looking for parking in one of those areas.

"I don’t know that there’s another option for us," Noriega said. "Unless you borrow someone’s phone and dial in."