Do I Need a Parking App?

“I would have missed the graduation if I had spent time downloading the app…”

A screenshot of an app for parking called "easypark." There are four panels in this graphic showing how the app works on the phone and that it takes cashless payment.
Do I need a Parking App?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My family and I were visiting an East Coast city this weekend for a college graduation. We parked our rental vehicle on the street and ended up getting a parking ticket. Apparently we missed the signage that requested we pay for parking by downloading an app, signing up, and entering the license plate number. I didn’t have that app, and had I downloaded it I would have missed the graduation ceremonies. Meanwhile, my Mom, who was with us, thought this was entirely unfair, as she does not have a cell phone in her own car. What to do for the future?Do I need a parking app? Carolyn, Pacifica

Dear Carolyn: Parking apps seem to proliferate like weeds and no one wants to set up an account with each one. Let me begin by listing some popular parking apps. Parkopeia/ParkingPanda/bestparking/smartparking/Parkmobile/easypark/PaybyPhone/Yodel/Parker/ParkWhiz/ParkingPanda/SpotHero/BestParking/ParkNav/Passport Parking/OPnGO/ParkPay/ParkMe/ParkingKitty.

A five minute search on Google revealed these providers. Clearly there are more, some that will work on Android, others on iPhone, and many that require a particular version of a phone’s operating system. I imagine that city planners spend a lot of time being solicited by these app providers and taking precious time to select the the “right” parking app for their community. They view it as a progressive transportation option but more people like you are asking, “Do I Need a Parking App?”

Write it Up:

As a first level of response, you should send an email or letter to the municipality that issued the ticket. Send it to both the court and to the transportation department. Explain that you had no opportunity to download the parking app. You could add that you keep your phone on WiFi, and could not reach their site. And, you might note that your elderly mother would have no way to connect if she was driving on her own.

From the consumer’s point-of-view these apps require a strong WiFi signal and they are collecting a lot more than a quarter ($0.25) or two. To register, each app is going to ask for credit card information, address, and license plate. These are private companies and municipal officials often overlook that the companies, not the town, has access to this data. This is, of course, for the privilege, or should I say the right, to park your vehicle.

Pre-Registration Apps:

There is some parallel here with using Uber or Lyft for ridehailing. These services are also designed on having real-time telecom access. Significantly, riders must set up an account and put their credit card, email, and phone number on file before they take their first trip. There is nothing spontaneous about first trips on Uber or Lyft. In the Bay Area, the bridges also use a pre-registration process.

Many parking apps seem to be designed with a similar sign-in. The problem is that you just want to park your car- not create an account. Historically, drivers expect to be able to toss a few quarters into the meter and leave. It’s not a high-involvement issue, except to the app makers and city planners.

Happy Appy? Sometimes:

When you write to the transportation department, recognize that they may views pros and cons. Perhaps they expect to improve the experience for visitors like you. They can deploy electronic metering to vary the price of parking by time of the day. They might also save money with the electronic app as they reduce staff who walk from meter to meter and bring the coins back for central processing.

There are also some advantages for the driver if they are forbearing. Concord NH, for example, reminds app users that they will never face a parking ticket again because the app reminds them when the time is expiring. And drivers can refresh the payment online and not need to walk back to the vehicle. That all sounds good, but this is the point where a parking app become ‘high involvement.’ Notifications need to be enabled on the smartphone to get these messages. That could be distracting and annoying- all for the sake of a few quarters or dimes.

Reduce Search Time:

Perhaps the greatest advantage of these apps is that the most advanced parking apps guide a driver towards open spaces- particularly in private or municipal lots. The Parknav app, for example, will predict street space availability in real time when you search for an address. This is valuable since a major source of urban traffic congestion is cars that circle to find a parking space. In an unscientific way, this Forbes article claims that about 30% of drivers at a given time are doing this and a third of NYC drivers report they search for 20 minutes on average.

If you plan to go back to this municipality for a future graduation then by all means download their app for parking. But if this was a one time visit, with a one time ticket, take the time to write the town or city. Let them know that for a drop-in or casual visitor, the parking app was an unfriendly deterrent. They should offer you, and your Mom, an option to pay with coins or a credit card, not just with your phone. It’s Pomp, Parking, and Circumstance.


Roadtrip with Phone Apps

Ready for a summer road-trip? Grab your phone but read this first!

A scenic picture of a two lane highway. There is a sign in the foregroud to call 411 for travel information. Can we take a roadtrip with phone apps?
Roadtrip with Phone Apps or Dial 511!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I helped my daughter and her fiancé get new Android phones, and they are taking them on an extended roadtrip. They will be driving to a lot to new places, and also using their phones for walking and biking side trips along the way. They call it the roadtrip with phone apps. I read that traffic accidents are way up this year- what can I do to keep them safe?  Robecca, San Leandro

Dear Robecca:  With my background in transportation, I have a couple of thoughts for making your family’s road trip with phone apps safe and enjoyable. First, make sure that their new phones have sufficiently large data plans. On the road they won’t be able to depend on WiFi to access the internet. A map app will use 5-10 MB of data per hour in normal mode but that will increase if they search for other locations or routes, change the map scale, or view attractions. There are useful features in maps that will advise them of traffic stoppages and alternative routes, but that will require them to keep the phone connected. Chances are they will not exceed the data plan limits, even then.*  When you think about it, Uber and Lyft drivers have to stay connected to their maps all day. Also, it’s good to know that phones will access 911 on other carriers’ networks when your cell provider has no service bars.

You didn’t mention the age of the car they are taking for this road trip.  The safest option is a dashboard screen which functions as a large extension of the phone. These display music apps, audible books, navigational maps, and so on with simplified controls. Availability will depend on the age of the vehicle and whether it supports a play-over third-party system. But, since there are two of them in the car, being “hands free” is less of a worry here. The passenger can keep busy and entertained between the two phones. 

Plan ahead:

Most likely your family will want to get in the habit of planning their trip at least one day ahead at a time and download the maps for the next day. They can do this when they pull into a hotel or campground. Then when they are on the road they won’t have to depend on having cell service and they will also have a good idea of the places they want to stop and visit. There is a function on phones called “auto-update offline maps” which would update the maps but they can probably turn it off to save data if they do day-by-day planning.

You mentioned that they are also want to explore on foot and on bike. Here it’s key that they use the phone mindfully. They might want to have the cellular service turned on because the GPS makes it easier to find the trail routes and unmarked paths. It’s useful to have the mapping features that speak out the directions or send out a vibration when there’s a turn to make. But, it’s not safe to be looking down at the phone as you walk, and even worse on a bike. This is a case where the smartphone is a traveler’s best friend and potential worst enemy.

Think Local:

One thing that the phone will not help them with is deciphering the difference in traffic laws across states. They tend to be uniform and all fifty states now allow right turns on red. However, some states let you enter a yellow light (Washington), and others restrict it (Oregon). Importantly, speed limits vary, and states set them individually. Lots of localities set their own speed limits, sometimes called speed traps. In newer vehicle the speed limit will transmit and display to the dashboard, along with the apps.

Another local tip: when you are on the road, apps on the phone are great for finding local accommodations, places to fill up the tank or recharge, and get food. They’ve pretty much replaced the billboards along the highway. However, the local businesses that rise to the surface in apps – these are not always the best. These are just the most web-savvy ones as first page rankings are bought, not earned. There is a “fee to list” to be prominent on a Google search or Yelp listing. Other businesses opt in but don’t pay the ad fee, so they less visible on the map or deeply buried within search pages. It’s a good idea to use multiple sources when searching for local information, and it’s time consuming. 

Calling Audio:

Finally, one last observation before getting on the open road. It’s noteworthy that we no longer have those safety call boxes along our highways- no need for them when 85% of the population has a cell phone to dial from. In California the $1.00 fee that supports the call boxes has been diverted to freeway service patrols, traveler information systems, and other travel demand services. On a cellphone, try calling ‘511’ and you will find that there is a wealth of real-time audio travel information, without the screen. 

*with a download of 2.2 MB per hour,  1 GB of data will be  reached in about 450-500 hours  of use.

Drivers Hold Phones…Why?

Take time to make a real connection between your car, your phone, and your brain!

A person in a car at the steering wheel holding a cell phone with one hand. Distracted driving. Photo from Belfast Ireland paper.
Drivers Hold Phones. Source: BelfastLive, 4/3/2019

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I have an International Driver’s License and will be visiting your country for a few months from Ireland. I like to look at cars and the drivers in them! I noticed that many U.S. drivers like to hold their phones when they drive. They seem to be in newer cars, so why don’t they go hands free instead?  Or use Siri or the Android voices on their phones?  Back home I think  we are less trusting when drivers hold phones. Thomas, Belfast.

Dear Thomas: I looked up the regulations for smartphones in your country. Except for driving on the other side of the road, the regulations are similar. But, the Northern Irish may be more aware of the issue. According to a newspaper survey of 1,000 readers, 88% reported seeing drivers using their phones within the past week. Yet just 30% admitted to touching their own phones while driving.

Your question gets to the heart of new technology in cars. A few years back I leased a Ford C-Max that could parallel park itself.  I tried out the feature once or twice and then never used it again. My logic was that I had to overthink it when I had to line up the cars just right to initiate parking. Second, at that time a car that parked itself seemed strange and novel. Third, parallel parking comes easy to me and I didn’t feel the need for this extra help. 

It turns out that in this country many people have newer technology on their cars, but like me, they are not using it. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (like the R.A.C.) finds that people are not aware of the features. They discovered that 25% of the U.S. drivers did not realize their vehicles had factory installed voice control technology. Two caveats: the respondents were over age 65 and the survey item did not distinguish built-in connectivity from Bluetooth. The good news is that nearly 50% of their vehicles did have this technology, so there was an opportunity to learn.

So, how do people find out about the technology? 

I recall that in the case of my self-parking Ford, the salesman tried to explain the feature but he was not  so familiar with it. He ended up recommending that I watch the videos when I got home. In the opt-cit AAA research study of older people, nearly half said that they “figured it out themselves”; twenty percent said through the dealer, and about 12% through the owner’s manual. Strikingly, 13% admitted they never learned to use the technology! 

So, to answer your question- why do drivers continue to hold their phone?  They don’t know better! But this is going to be related to the age of the driver. Bluetooth technology is now in about 3 out of 5 vehicles here. Apple CarPlay or Android Auto might be more intuitive to drivers –  to younger aged ones. 

There’s one more thing to keep in mind. Are drivers safer because they are using their smartphones in the car? An academic institution, Virginia Tech, does lab research and consistently reports that drivers who use hands-free devices are less likely to get into a crash. However, many transportation and safety officials disagree. Interacting with an electronic device often requires pushing buttons or looking at displays, which means taking eyes (and concentration) off the road. The National Safety Council says drivers carrying on a conversation on a cellphone can overlook up to 50% of what is occurring outside the windshield and the part of the brain that processes moving things is reduced by up to a third. 

As you process that and get accustomed to driving here, there are lots of elements to consider. For example, getting directions, studying U.S. traffic rules and driving on the right. If you plan to go hands-free here, take the time to make a real connection between your car, your phone, and your brain.