Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Autochalk, love it/hate it

Ok, now that I've got your attention. For those of you that haven't seen this vehicle, it's a computer equipped SUV with a bunch of digital cameras. It drives around town recording who's parked where, then on a second sweep more than 2 hours later, it records who has been parked longer than the 2 hour time limit. A few days later the owner of record gets a letter in the mail. The first time, you only get a warning, and a letter reminding you that you can't park more than 2 hours Monday-Saturday, and it also puts info in there about where longer term parking lots and the garage are located. I of course am writing this with some first hand knowledge of this warning procedure (thanks for not sending tickets right away).

I'm writing this post because of the relative beating this tool takes, especially considering it's relatively inexpensive costs.

Lets go back to the beginning. Autochalk was purchased with money left over in a fund for transportation projects (think gas tax) that wasn't fully expended. They city spent part of that money (100k) on Autochalk, and the rest went into revitalizing the train station. The train station got a much needed coat of paint and some other minor repairs (thank you from a regular traveler on VRE). In the city council meeting minutes from that decisions, there were a few other options tossed around for the 100k, my least favorite was red light cameras. From attending the council meetings regularly, I can tell you that there are regular requests from residents around the college to help with the parking situation there, or from businesses downtown looking for help freeing up customer parking in a limited parking environment.

One poster went back to the January council meeting where a four month audit of the program stats was presented. Basically Autochalk alone, for four months, raised $10,030 (article in FLS). The article in the FLS also reflects other poster's comments that there are many intangible (and subjective) improvements such as reducing violations, more open spots, better enforcement in other areas, etc. You can read those for yourself, I want to echo what was posted as far as revenue, and what is backed up by data from the police chief at city council.

In that same four months that autochalk was measured, written parking tickets were up in two other closely watched (and complained about) neighborhoods. College Heights and the train station. In four months, Police Chief Nye reported that his department wrote 553 tickets in college heights. There were almost none written in 2006, so he did not give a difference. During those same four months, there were 172 more tickets written in the train station area than there were in the same months of 2006.

I went back to the council agenda, pulled up Nye's report on the overall ticket revenue for those four months. Of all the hand written tickets, I calculated an average ticket value of $24.80 (some tickets were as much as $100, others were just warnings).

$24.80 x 725 = $17980 (hand written revenue)

So looking at the increase in revenue from tickets from four months of 2006 to the same in 2007 gives us $17980+$10030 = $28,010. If ticket revenue is linear, x3=$84,030 more than last year. We must assume that part of this revenue had to cover the salary and benefits of the parking officer driving Autochalk - no robot vehicles yet - and that the SUV required more gas than whatever parking vehicle we used before. According to, an experienced patrol officer making the median salary would be between $39k and $56k, a midpoint salary of $47.5k. I'm counting the 100k as sunk cost, which it should be since we didn't borrow the money. Alternatively, you can figure that city could have paid off borrowed funds in 5-8 years.
Update 3/20: The police dept did not hire a new patrol officer, rather they used an existing officer to operate Autochalk. I had figured this cost as a worst case, but now I have data that allows me to remove this conservative calculation. It was also pointed out that the first month of AC was almost all warnings, so if/when we see full year revenue, the full year should really be the first 13 months of operation. This makes the payback even better, not to mention the problems resolved through it's use. Matt Kelly points out in a comment to this post several items that this solution has addressed in the city.

Before anyone else points this out, this calculation isn't clear on exactly which tickets were written by the extra 1/2 of a parking officer being funded this year by UMW. The city must pay the other 1/2 person (unless you want only legs or only torso), so this is really all part of a parking solution that includes the officers AND autochalk, with a total annual revenue estimate of $84k. Still justifies council's "pays for itself" justification even with conservative expense estimates. Also, as stated before, much nicer investment than the alternative red-light cameras one other council member was proposing.

I'm putting this out on the blog as hope that the city police will present full year results of all parking activity when they get all of the data. Then city council can make sound decisions if they are correctly funding activities that alleviate complaints from citizens and businesses. Parking has been a priority, and will probably remain a priority.

Finally, let me give my suggestions for the next rounds of bonus transportation funding.

  1. I'd like to see emergency services detectors on every stoplight from the interstate, RT1, RT2 & RT3 going to the hospital. Speeding ambulances through our congested streets is going to be important to the life those on board, and I hate seeing people having to get out of the way at lights that haven't turned.
  2. If that is too expensive and costly, the other thing I'd like to see is to have the traffic engineer regularly re-time the lights down the major arteries. I routinely get stopped at almost every light on Princess Anne, Amelia, and the lights on Rt3 on both sides of the interstate.
On these two suggestions, there are many days where I feel that we don't have a traffic problem, instead we have a stoplight problem.

So as you can see here, even though Autochalk may look funny, and that ticket in the mail can be maddening, it seems to be a financially sound decision, and anecdotal evidence from residents, business owners and the parking officers indicates that it's helping. I guess we could have just put meters up on all the spots, which would make parking in the garage look great. FYI, back in 2005 USA Today and parking expert Donald Shoup had this article on the costs of providing free parking. I would say the situation we have with Autochalk is pretty good match to what the city has said they want for parking.


Nathan said...

I find it interesting that, as a government vehicle, it is a Toyota, not a Big-3 American car.

Matt Kelly said...

BRYAN--A few observations:

1. We didn't hire a new employee to man auto chalk. Same guy covering a much larger area. Shouldn't include his cost in your analysis.

2. For the first month or so of operations only warnings were issued. No revenue.

3. Council tourism friendly policy--all first time offenders get a warnning. No ticket. We have issued lots of warnings.

4. Auto chalk is doing what was expected. Turning parking over in the downtown and expanding parking enforecement around the train station and University.

Bryan said...

I've gotten one of those warnings, and was very thankful for this customer friendly policy.

Thanks Matt for filling in a few more details! I have added an update to the original comment about staffing. The justification just keeps getting better.

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