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.

Can’t Turn Off Bluetooth

the control bar of an Android phone with the Bluetooth icon highlighted (in blue).
Can’t turn off Bluetooth?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I consider myself fairly informed with tech so I can’t figure out why my phone is always turning itself ‘on’ to Bluetooth. I turn the Bluetooth ‘off’. Next time I pick up the phone it is back ‘on’. It feels like the phone overrides what I want. BTW, I have an Apple phone, but my son says has the same issue with his Android. He can’t turn off Bluetooth either. Terry, Rohnert Park

Dear Terry: This Bluetooth problem makes you wonder if these next-generation phones have sentience! Bluetooth, for the record, is a low-powered two way radio signal emitted by smartphones. It works over short distances, about 30 feet or less. More exotically the logo, comes from a bind rune honoring an Old Norse ruler, Harald I of Denmark (source: Wikipedia).

Bluetooth enables your phone to connect to headphones, to speakers in your car, nearby computers, and significantly ‘More’! It is in ‘More’ that you will find the answer to your question. Data exchanges and handshakes take place all day between our phones and data centers. They are not transparent but Bluetooth enables the process. Bluetooth is sending essential updates for advertisers, business people, and information brokers. Perhaps that is why our phones make it so hard to override the defaults?

Pinging Away

For example, one of the most useful transmissions of Bluetooth data occurs in the transportation arena. Phones with Bluetooth are constantly pinged for their travel time and location. Hundreds and thousands of these pings help create the travel maps we use in real time. Perhaps you are grateful for knowing if there is traffic on the Bay bridge, or how long it’s going you to get to the airport.

Or, say you are in a retail store or coffee shop, and they have Bluetooth sensors hidden in the ceiling or displays. They collect travel data from your phone– when you entered the establishment, your indoor walking path, and how long you stayed. Should you log onto the free WiFi, the data miners might also capture your phone’s MAC address and remember it when you return.

Keep in mind all phones are “leaky” when it comes to privacy so it’s good digital hygiene to take precautions. Your phone is going to turn Bluetooth on by itself whenever you use an app that requests location data, so you should take steps to check these defaults. If you close these apps and deny them location data Bluetooth should stay off. But know that true privacy is hard to come by. A phone with cellular service still stays connected unless in airplane mode.

Off is it?

Even when you deliberately turn off both Bluetooth and GPS, your phone may be sending some data. This article in Quartz describes how tricky it can be to turn off all these settings on an Android phone. You have to go deep into the menus to find this feature, and even then, the description will obfuscate. Both the Android and the Iphone, let you turn Bluetooth ‘off’ in the control bars, but it seems to stay turned ‘off’ longer if you do this through the settings page.

One final note on Bluetooth- treat it like a third party to your phone and take precautions. About five years ago there was a virus called Blueborne (son of Harald) and it exploited vulnerabilities in the two-way settings. For Apple, an operating system newer than iOS 10.3.3 is safe. But, that’s until the next hacker finds an opening. On a more personal note, be conscientious when your speakers are enabled by Bluetooth- is anyone else in the room listening in? Remove the Bluetooth trace from the dashboard when you return a rental car, and over Airplay, revoke the right to send and receive from “everybody,” particularly over a WiFi setting.