Business

SEAN P. MURPHY | THE FINE PRINT

Pay-by-phone meter feeding goes awry

Judy White’s phone held the crucial evidence — an electronic receipt that showed she did not park illegally in Brookline.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
Judy White’s phone held the crucial evidence — an electronic receipt that showed she did not park illegally in Brookline.

Judy White returned to her car in Brookline one day in August to find a parking enforcement officer in the act of ticketing her for a meter violation.

There’s been some kind of mistake, White thought as she approached. And then she whipped out her mobile phone to prove it: The electronic receipt that popped up on her screen showed she had paid through 11:59 a.m. She had 44 minutes to spare.

It wasn’t the first complaint of faulty parking enforcement lodged with the town of Brookline. Since the town rolled out its pay-by-cellphone technology in March, dozens of people have complained they received tickets despite properly paying for their parking time. Others may have been similarly victimized but paid the ticket rather than face the hassle of an appeal.

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White, a former Midwesterner with a self-described stubborn streak, insisted that the enforcement officer not issue the ticket she had begun to prepare on one of the hand-held devices officers use on their rounds.

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“It happens all the time,” the officer grumbled before walking off in the direction of Coolidge Corner without completing the ticket, White recalled.

Town officials say they are working to eliminate such glitches. Since they suspended the program for a couple of weeks in the summer to huddle with their technology vendor, the number of complaints has diminished. But White’s ticket was issued after officials paused the program for two weeks, suggesting all the bugs weren’t fixed.

Town officials insist that’s bound to be the case with any new technology. “Growing pains,” said Austin Faison, assistant town manager.

Anyone can download the free app to a smartphone. Check the Brookline website for details. I downloaded it, created an account, and linked it to my credit card in about a minute. Now, when I park in Brookline, all I have to do is punch in the number assigned for each space (it’s displayed on the meter) and specify how much time I want. There is a 30-cent transaction fee, in addition to what you pay for parking.

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For the system to work, my phone must be able to “talk” to the enforcement officer’s hand-held device. But there is an occasional disconnect.

Brookline residents and visitors have shown they love the pay-by-cellphone system, which many consider more convenient than feeding quarters into a meter or swiping a credit card.

Almost one-quarter of all parking transactions are now made through the pay-by-phone app. It can be used at all of the town’s 3,000 metered parking spaces.

Judging by the experience in neighboring Newton, where the same technology — using the same vendor — was rolled out more than a year ago, the glitches are likely to continue.

Jim McGonagle, Newton’s director of public works, said the city each month receives a couple dozen appeals of tickets issued to pay-by-cell users. Not all of them are the result of flaws in the technology (some involve entering the wrong space number, for example), he said. But about 10 a month can be blamed on faulty technology, and that’s unacceptable, he said.

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“Our goal is to get it down to no complaints,” he told me. “I think that’s an achievable goal.”

A Brookline parking enforcement officer approached a meter.
John Tlumacki/Globe Staff
A Brookline parking enforcement officer approached a meter.

First point: If you are using the kind of pay-by-cell technology that is increasingly available in a growing number of municipalities, including Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, beware. If you find a dreaded orange ticket under the window wiper, check your receipt. If it shows you are properly paid, challenge the ticket.

Happily, Brookline, Newton, and other municipalities provide an easy way to have a wrongly issued ticket dismissed. You do it by uploading your electronic receipt to the town or city website. Forget about taking time off from work to schlep to some cheerless municipal office to beg for dismissal. Now it’s click, click, done. (So long as you have the receipt).

Second point: Pay-by-cell seems to be the future. The best feature might be the alert that sounds on a phone when the purchased parking time is running out. At that point, whether you are in the dentist’s chair or having lunch with friends, you can add more time through your phone, though some spots have a total-time cap on them.

Boston, Cambridge, Brookline, and Newton use the same vendor, Passport Inc., based in North Carolina. WCVB-TV (Channel 5) reported in May that thousands of users of the Boston pay-by-cell app, ParkBoston, were subjected to duplicate charges in some instances. The users later received refunds. City officials blamed a technical glitch.

The problem that has bedeviled Brookline and Newton is one of digital communications: The message confirming your payment must travel from your phone to the system vendor to the enforcement officer’s hand-held device. Like any journey, there can be delays and wrong turns.

“I know it’s frustrating,” said Myles Murphy, the Brookline police deputy superintendent in charge of traffic enforcement. “The breakdowns certainly got our attention.”

The number of tickets that are appealed by pay-by-phone users is now down to a trickle, Murphy said.

White, a freelance advertising copywriter from West Roxbury, actually discovered two flaws in Brookline’s program. One was technological. The other was more human.

The enforcement officer who White confronted (nicely) on Beacon Street that morning in August assured her the ticket she had begun to write was voided. But it wasn’t. That’s not how the system works. Once an officer begins writing it, there’s no way to stop, Faison told me. The officer apparently fibbed.

So White was dumbfounded, she said, when she received a notice demanding payment of $40 for a parking violation on Aug. 15 ($25 for the violation and $15 as a penalty for not paying within 21 days). She was looking around the town’s website for more information when she happened upon the page that allowed her to quickly appeal and win dismissal.

A small victory.

“I got mine resolved,” she said. “I just hope other people do the same.”

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.