20 Questions with Former Parking Commissioner of New York City
As lovers of all things parking and traffic related, MyParkingPermit.com is always seeking to learn more about ways to improve parking efficiency. And, since we're based out of Brooklyn, it was only natural for us to want learn how it's done in The Big Apple. So, we reached out to our friend and parking expert, Larry Berman, with 20 questions to quench our parking thirst.
Larry Berman began his career with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) as a draftsman in 1964. He soon worked his way up to Borough Engineer of the five boroughs, eventually becoming Parking Commissioner from 1992-1997. He currently sits as the Vice President of Parking and Transportation Applications at Metered Concepts & VP of Product Development for ParkNOW!
Life as Parking Commisioner
What were some of your responsibilities as Parking Commissioner?
As parking commissioner, I was tasked with enhancing parking efficiency and parking enforcement. For instance, I was tasked with approving the installation of parking signs which regulated metered areas and the meter installations for those signs. We operated 56 lots & 12 garages in addition to 72,000 on-street meters.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as Parking Commissioner?
Theft. The biggest issue was making sure that every penny put into the system eventually wound up in the bank. In 1993, we were bringing in about $100 million in revenue – about $70 million in parking meter revenue and another $30 million in garage revenue. That money needs to be physically taken out of the parking meters by the collectors, who are responsible for taking the money out of meters and bringing to the counting house at our facility, where we counted money all day at five stations to prepare for the bank deposits. In my first year as commissioner, I had installed 1,000 parking meters, which, according to the rule of thumb at the time, should have generated about $1 million. Yet I didn't see the revenue: the numbers just didn’t add up. I gathered my staff into a meeting to find out what happened to the missing revenue. When nobody could point out what happened, I said, "If somebody is stealing and you guys don’t know it, I'm going to fire everybody." That got everybody looking. Meanwhile, I went down to the police department and assigned two officers to the collection team of about 60 people. Guess what we found? Grand-scale theft on the collectors’ part.We ended up having to arrest and fire about 50 of the 60 collectors at the time.
How much were the collector's stealing?
Between 3-5 million in revenue a year.
So what measures did you take to prevent theft? Did those measures work?
We put more checks and balances in the system. For one,we would go out in the field and put marked money in, say, 100 parking meters. After collection, we would see if all the 100 coins came back. If they didn’t, we would know right away that theft was occurring. Other times, we would go out the night before collection and check it ourselves and compare our results with the collectors’. We did that often. Did the measures work? Yes – and to my knowledge, I don't think any mass firing such as what occurred during my time has happened since.
What were the main parking issues during your tenure?
Well there were and are three main issues in the parking industry. First of all, you always have to generate more revenue for the city. While we tried to avoid raising the rates and maximizing our assets, we occasionally had to do so or put in more meters.
Secondly, you always have to maintain personnel levels. This was quite tricky during my tenure not only because of all the firing that occurred, but also because the hiring process for personnel was long and tedious: sometimes it took nine months to replace a person, mainly because the job required very technical skills. Who would replace that person in the meanwhile? We were stretched very thin, especially after I fired all those collectors. We were about 800 strong in all our divisions but the difficulty of monitoring 70,000 meters without 50 or so employees was immense.
Thirdly, you always have to deal with political obstacles: every time we raised the rates or put in new meters, we had to justify ourselves to elected officials as well as to the general public.
What were some of the techniques you used to increase parking efficiency?
Increasing parking efficiency placed a constant stress on our creative facility. For instance, we would work with parking-meter manufacturers to discuss improvements. When I first got there, every parking meter was mechanical: you would put in the quarter, turn the handle, and wind the meter like a clock. We actually had watchmakers fixing these meters because the meter’s components were very mechanical.
In any case, these meters were very inefficient. For one, they couldn’t identify fake coins – so as long as the coin was the right size, the meter accepted it. We got a lot of counterfeit coins. To counter these problems, we began testing for the first electronic parking meters. These meters were better in every aspect. We progressed from handles to an automated system, installed coin discriminators to prevent counterfeiting, and featured digital displays in our meters. The electric parking meter was the invention of a whole new parking appliance.
Did you feel that your job was to increase revenue or to increase parking efficiency?
Both, but we made every effort to increase parking efficiency without making people pay more, like increasing options for parkers. For example, I introduced the first parking card, a sort of smart card that allows you to pay without lugging around coins. I really enjoy this part of the job – coming up with parking technology. In fact, I probably hold about 5 or 6 parking patents since leaving the government.
Metered and Street Parking
Did you come up with the "(No Parking No Standing No Stopping) No Kidding" sign? What was the backstory? Did you ever feel that car parkers would take the campaign less seriously because it was funny?
Yes, I came up with it along with my staff. The reason was that people thought they wouldn’t get caught parking when, in reality, we were towing at tremendous rates. We thought we had to do something, you know, "tongue-in-cheek," to catch their attention and get the message across. Did I think people wouldn’t take it seriously? No, not really: people would laugh, yes, but they would also take note of the signs.
Do people actually steal meters? How can they extract the money? How much money is in the meters at a given time?
Oh, absolutely – all the time. It’s not easy but it’s like breaking into an ATM. We used to hear stories all the time about single space meters being placed on railroad tracks for a train to break it open. We also heard of people attempting to use blow torches but then discovering that the coins would melt. Basically, there are two types of single-space meters: low capacity ($45) and high capacity (65$). So there’s only around $70 (in the meters), but to some people, that's a lot of money. On the other hand, multi-space meters store around $800 but around 35% – 50% of multi-space transactions are credit card transactions.
What happened to single-space meters? How come most meters are multi-space meters, commonly known as "muni meters?"
The heyday of single-space meters ended with the arrival of multi-space meters five years ago. A company called IPS came out with a revolutionary idea to revive the efficiency of single-space parking meters by enabling communication with a host computer. This allowed parking engineers the ability to make programming changes, and more importantly, allowed parkers to pay by credit card. This last aspect led to a huge increase in the demand for single-space meters, and virtually saved single-space meters from extinction. I would estimate that there are probably around 90,000 of these single-space meters in at this time.
So at the end of the day, which are better – single space or multi-space meters?
As for which are better – per space, multi-space meters cost the same as single-space meters. A multi-space meter costs around $8,000 and usually covers about 10 parking spots (because they don’t want you to have to walk too far). At the same time, single-space meters cost about $1,000 or less each, and ten of those in bulk cost around $8,000. However, the difference is really found in maintenance costs: multi-space meters cost significantly less to maintain because there are fewer; whereas each single-space require frequent checks and more locks and keys. Theft is another factor: it's much harder to steel a multi-space meter than it is a single-space meter. I mean, the multi-space meters are really stuck in the ground whereas the single-space meters, although firmly implanted, can be removed.
Which is better: booting or towing? If booting, why is booting currently used only in Brooklyn and not the rest of NYC?
Towing is costly: you need to hire a tow truck driver, find a storage facility for the car, and pay someone to run the pound—not to mention damage and theft liability fines. So booting is better. But there are dangers also. The person has to go to an agency to pay for the boot charges and the fines, and then go back to the car and wait for somebody to come out and release the boot. Plus, the guy that comes to release to the boot, you take all your anger out on him or her. It’s a horrible situation either way.
However, there are newer "SmartBoots" on the market that make booting a whole lot easier—for both the enforcer and driver. In fact, I helped design PayLock's self-release boot, which allows drivers to punch in a code to dismantle the boot rather than wait for someone else. Of course, the driver first has to call PayLock's call center and pay the appropriate fines, but that takes a few minutes. Drivers then place the boot in the trunk and have to drop it off at the nearest boot-drop off within 24 hours. PayLock's system is the one currently installed in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the only borough, for now, because it's a demo-test for the rest of NYC.
What do you think of NYC's Department of Sanitation’s recent incentive program to reduce alternate-side parking restrictions if neighborhoods meet a certain cleanliness rating?
I agree with that wholeheartedly. I don't think it's a parking issue as much as it is a community and sanitation department issue. I think that if the community board agrees that the streets are clean enough, then they should be able to reduce parking restrictions. Plus, it saves the city money by diverting sanitation resources elsewhere.
Parking and Traffic Controversies
What do you think about residential permit parking?
It's not uncommon in a lot of cities. I've been working on that for year and I have mixed feelings about it. It’s sort of like saying "Keep out, this parking is just for me and my neighbors." You don’t really see residential parking permits in depressed areas, but more often in beach front or upscale communities. Politically, it's a very delicate issue. From the municipality's standpoints, it's a money maker because they get to charge for the permits. But there are a lot of problems. First of all, you have forgeries and the problem of getting permits of visitors. Not to mention hiring contractors and additional enforcement. Residential parking is a bit more understandable in cities with a sports stadium or college where parking is scarce. But beachfront communities are a bit different so I think it's a case–by–case issue and shouldn't be decided lightly.
What is your opinion on smart-meters? Some argue that they improve parking availability since they are equipped with vehicle sensors automatically notifying parking enforcement should it detect that a car has overstayed the parking rules.
In 1992, I gave out the first contract for vehicle sensing to a company called Intelligent Meters, to create a meter that can sense a vehicle’s presence 80% of the time. Unfortunately, the meters managed only 70% so the contract was scrapped, but others have since improved the sensing capability. But as with any parking tool, it depends on how it’s used. I don’t think smart-meters should be used as an enforcement tool to ticket on an individual basis. Instead, because smart-meters store such useful parking information, they can be used in analyzing general parking trends. For instance, you can monitor parking levels at certain times of the day to see what times or areas are busiest, and adjust accordingly by changing pricing or parking hours, for example. Nonetheless, these smart-parking meters supply us with information that previously relied on manpower. So not only do they improve parking availability, but they also enhance parking analysis.
Can't drivers reset smart–meters by pulling out and then back in? Wouldn’t that cause animosity amongst drivers who might think a driver is pulling out but is actually just re-parking?
As for resetting the meters – yes, the reset time is about 5-10 seconds. The reality is that there will be animosity either way. Either drivers are frustrated if they don’t find parking because another party has been parked for over 8 hours or angry if they think someone is pulling out but is actually pulling back in to reset the meter. Sometimes, you're just trading one complaint for another.
What do you think about the controversial Red Light Camera Program?
The first red light camera was actually installed in NYC right outside my office building. It was even more controversial in the beginning because of privacy issues: the camera used to take a picture of the front of the car, thereby including the driver. As a result, the program has changed to taking the picture from the rear. But the real controversy lies in whether the program reduces accidents. To my knowledge, most of the studies conclude that the program does not. At the same time, I think there is some validity to the deterrent because people are saying to each other, "Watch out, don’t run that red light, there's a camera." Do the cameras deter the drunk or inattentive red-light runners? Probably not. But they might deter responsible drivers who err occasionally. Whether it’s making a right turn on red without coming to a full stop or hesitating to speed through the yellow, a lot of accidents happen that way, even though drivers think they are being responsible.
What about increasing the duration of the yellow light? Or installing a countdown indicator?
Increasing the yellow light is an exact science that's based on the speed limit reaction time. So if you increase the duration of the yellow light, you also have to increase the speed limit. This can be quite tricky and make things even more dangerous since more drivers will speed up to make it through yellow light. This can be quite tricky and make things even more dangerous. As for the countdown indicator, I don't think it improves safety – rather, it causes more distractions. Ideally, people should come to a very gradual stop when they see the yellow, period.
They're great; I love them. Most parking apps share three important features. First, they let you pay by phone if you lack enough quarters. Secondly, they remind you when the parking meter is going to expire. Thirdly, they allow you to add extend your time over your phone. But that doesn’t mean that you can extend more time than the meter allows: these apps are fully synchronized with the Department of Transportation's parking regulations and policies.
The Politics of Parking
What's your opinion on NYC's new bike-share program as a healthy and green transportation alternative?
I think that all transportation alternatives are great as long as they don’t negatively affect pedestrian and motor traffic, and as long as we have the ability to provide for it with bike lanes and the like.
If you were to give one piece of advice to Janette Sidak Kahn, the current DOT Parking Commissioner, what would it be?
"Good Luck." It’s a really complex job – from a transportation point of view and from a political point of view.
Who determines parking violation fees? How are those amounts determined?
That’s done by the Parking Violations Bureau, which is a separate agency. The Bureau usually determines the fines just by making them high enough to deter would-be-violators. Just take a look at the handicap parking fees: they're much higher than any other violation because there's a need to discourage rampant, illegal handicap parking.
The heyday of single-space meters ended with the arrival of multi-space meters twenty years ago. A company called IPS in the last five years came out with a revolutionary idea to revive the efficiency of single-space parking meters by enabling communication with a host computer. This allowed parking engineers the ability to make programming changes, and more importantly, allowed parkers to pay by credit card. This last aspect led to a huge increase in the demand for single-space meters, and virtually saved single-space meters from extinction. I would estimate that there are probably around 90,000 of these single–space meters installed.
Why was your job heavily influenced by politics?
Well because that's nature of public roads. The DOT has to answer to the public and public officials for most its decisions.
Who has the final say – the DOT or the public?
We do because we’re the safety experts. The public will pressure you endlessly but if you have a strong back and know what you’re doing, then they will trust you in the end because they want to avoid safety liability. But a lot of times you find yourself having to compromise to satisfy both sides. You have to try your hardest to come up with something creative that will appeal to both sides. For instance, if a child is struck crossing the street, I invariably get pressure from parents, lawyers, and public officials to put up a traffic light. Do I put up the traffic light? Not if my safety engineers prove otherwise. If they conduct a study showing a traffic light diminishes safety and traffic efficiency as opposed to improving, I will stand by their judgment. To compromise, I might put up a Stop Sign or reduce the speed limit.