The Pros and Cons of License Plate Recognition
hen making the decision to adopt a new technology — especially one that comes with a high price tag like license place recognition (LPR) — the best advice tends to come from people with real hands-on experience. To aid those who might be looking at the technology, we spoke to the city parking managers and operators of high-volume garages (see sidebar) who have already implemented LPR to get their take on the pros and cons.
Efficient and Effective
Matt Eierman, parking services manager for the City of Sacramento, was an early adopter of LPR technology. “We purchased our first two machines in 2004,” said Eierman. “At that time, which was the beginning stages of the technology, we were using it for time zone enforcement and our hot lists of bootable and stolen vehicles.”
For the operators of high volume garages, implementing LPR tends to be less about parking controls and enforcement.
Eierman said while they found the technology useful, it didn’t really become a prominent part of their operations until 2013 when they began coupling LPR with other parking technologies.
“You can see the big shift in 2013,” said Eierman. “Now the things we integrate with LPR — from pay by plate and pay by phone to digital credentials — are just amazing.”
Eierman said that LPR‘s biggest attribute lies in the efficiency and effectiveness it provides his parking enforcement officers.
“What used to take us two hours to patrol now takes 15 minutes,” said Eierman. “We want to make sure that our parking enforcement officers have all of the tools available.”
Those tools also come in handy when it comes to contested tickets and adjudication. “Now we can submit photos to the third party adjudicators,” said Eierman.
Moving Away from Chalk
Michael McDonald, parking supervisor for the City of Seal Beach, agrees: “The before and after pictures from LPR are great evidence for contested citations and the adjudication process.”
McDonald said that Seal Beach originally implemented LPR approximately two years ago as a way to streamline the city’s permit program and get away from chalking car tires for its timed and permit-required zones, but that it has come in handy for other purposes as well.
“LPR also allows us to locate scofflaws and reported stolen vehicles,” said McDonald.
Getting away from chalking cars and handwritten citations was also the reason Tony Valadez, parking programs manager for the City of Napa, implemented LPR after testing its capabilities in nearby cities that were already using it.
As with the other parking managers, Valadez mentioned that the price of the technology is still quite high, but that he was able to find a vendor with a system that was scalable to his needs (and tight budget), and that after its first year the LPR had already increased their effectiveness in catching time violators.
“One of our better weeks we quadrupled the number of violators that we found relative to the same week the year before,” said Valadez. “I wouldn’t say it’s consistently that dramatic but we have seen a massive increase in our effectiveness.”
Data Driven Decisions
In Paso Robles, parking managers actually began using LPR — and the data it provided — as a way to justify adding parking controls to their downtown area.
“When we implemented LPR in 2018 Paso Robles basically had no parking control,” said City of Paso Robles Commander Caleb Davis.
Davis said they started thinking about implementing parking controls after receiving feedback from downtown businesses that there was no parking available.
They used LPR-fitted vehicles to scan the area and learned that most of the people taking up the spots were the employees at those businesses.
“The data collection was invaluable,” said Donna King, the city’s parking ambassador, who said they could point to the cars that regularly parked in the same spaces seven hours a day, five days a week.
With that data in hand, the city created a new program where those employees were given designated parking lots around downtown, and then it implemented paid parking — two hours free and then $1/hour after that — on street in the downtown core.
“From a management perspective, having the data to justify what we were doing to the city council on down saved us a lot of headaches,” said Davis.
What to Know
When asked what advice they would give other cities looking to implement LPR, King pointed out that it’s important to have someone in place to analyze all the data, while McDonald suggested testing the cellular signal during peak seasons and times.
“To transfer LPR information to our electronic citation writers, we need a good cellular signal,” said McDonald. “When a lot of people are using their cell phones, connectivity becomes a challenge and the system slows down.”
Eierman said it is important to involve the city’s IT people early on in the decision-making process.
“That way you have experts available that can help get through the city’s firewall and understand what the goals are,” said Eierman.
“You don’t want to get through to determining contract terms and then have the IT people say you can’t do it.”
Eierman also suggested drafting a specific policy, something they did in Sacramento alongside the police department because they were also using the LPR cameras.
Moving forward, he sees continued integration of LPR with other city technologies. “I’m a true believer in the technology and where it’s going,” said Eierman.
Ann Shepphird is a technical writer for Parking Today. She can be reached at email@example.com
LPR in High-Volume Garages
For the operators of high volume garages, implementing LPR tends to be less about parking controls and enforcement (although it does alleviate the “I lost my ticket and was only here a few minutes” kerfuffles) and more about providing increased convenience for the parker.
LPR really comes in handy on game day when a large crowd is leaving
at the same time.
“Speed is the best answer,” said Scott Fielder, director of parking services for the Atlanta Braves and Battery Atlanta, the area filled with restaurants, shops and office buildings that surrounds the Braves’ ballpark. “You are basically eliminating lines of cars.”
Fielder implemented LPR in the busiest of the six parking decks he currently oversees (a seventh is under construction). That garage — the main deck — attracts a mix of Battery Atlanta office tenants, employees and customers, and Braves fans. While Fielder reports that LPR is appreciated by the regular parkers, who don’t have to worry about having their cards out when exiting, it really comes in handy on game day when a large crowd is leaving at the same time. “After a Major League Baseball game, I can empty a full deck of 1,800 cars in under an hour,” said Fielder.
Christophe Malsang, vice-president of parking for Houston First Parking, oversees five garages in the area of Houston near the city’s arena, convention center, theater district and two largest hotels. He implemented LPR as a way to speed up the process of exiting in three of his garages.
“When we have a major event, we have a couple thousand people exiting at the same time,” said Malsang. “I wanted to find a technology for our busy garages that also interfaced well with our hotels’ PMS system and LPR fit.”
In addition to aiding a quick exit, Malsang said the transparency of the technology provides important data for auditing and has the added benefit of catching delinquent parkers.
“The people who used to cheat, we now catch,” said Malsang. He added that the revenue in one of his garages increased by 20 percent after adding LPR, which — when added to the decrease in staffing required at the exits — helped recoup their investment.
Still, both Malsang and Fielder mentioned that because of the current price point for LPR technology, it only makes sense for some of their garages.
“The technology has gotten better,” said Fielder, “but not the price.” Fielder said he would love to use it in his other garages, but at the moment the cost is prohibitive because, although it provides more convenience for the parkers, it hasn’t corresponded with a comparable increase in revenue.
“Depending on the property, the return on investment might not make sense,” said Malsang. “However, when it comes down to customer satisfaction and an improved experience for the parker, LPR is definitely the way to go.”