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NAU’s ‘Virtual Parking’ Solution Could Replace Permits

The windshields of vehicles parked at Northern Arizona University will be less cluttered this year as University Transit Services moves from permit stickers to “virtual parking.”

The new system will treat license plates as the permits, which will be scanned by license-plate-recognizing cameras mounted to university vehicles.

“Users no longer have to worry about losing their permit or forgetting to move it if they are using a different vehicle registered to their account,” Erin Stam, director of the NAU transit department, wrote in an email.

Using license plates instead of permits also reduces theft, counterfeit permits and environmental impact, according to the Transit Services website.

Virtual permits are also immediately valid and available for purchase now. Current sticker permits will expire Wednesday, Aug. 14.

License plate recognition

Stam said NAU purposefully held back on this technology, which is already in use by many other universities and municipalities.

“We delayed implementing since Arizona only has single-sided license plates. While many universities with single-sided plates tell their users which way to park, we wanted to give our customers a choice,” she wrote.

Permit holders are required to park with their license plates facing the aisle, clear of obstructions like snow, unless they have a front-facing license plate or purchase one from the university for $20. Stam said the cost for these plates will be waived this year.

This system is currently only in place for parking lots; garages will continue to operate using permits and temporary tickets until the license-plate-recognizing cameras connected to the entrance and exit gates can be installed. This installation is planned for completion by 2020.

Parking kiosks will also be phased into the new system this year. Campus visitors will not receive printed tickets, but must enter their license plate number and park with the plate facing the aisle.

An e-book on license plate recognition released by T2 Systems, one of the vendors providing these services at NAU, states that this technology is more effective in Europe, where license plates are more standardized. In the United States, different styles of plates – like out-of-state plates or specialty designs – can drop successful recognitions below 80%.

Employee walkthroughs of parking lots will continue as needed to account for this.

Permit holders can manage their account online at any time using an online parking portal on the Transit Services website, adding up to five different vehicles to one account, though only one vehicle per permit can be parked on campus at a time.

All other parking procedures and rules remain the same, including a one-time ticket forgiveness policy, which allows people who pass an online educational course to waive one parking fine per year. Certain violations, like parking in a restricted area, are not eligible for this waiver, though.

Problems remain

The new technology, though beneficial, does not address many of the existing concerns about NAU parking.

Julie Heynssens, senior lecturer in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, has purchased a permit for each of the seven years she has worked at NAU, even though there are no options that accommodate her schedule well.

“I work in two different buildings … but if I buy a parking pass for the parking garage, I can’t park any place else, so I end up walking from the library every day,” Heynssens said.

She expressed a few concerns about virtual parking, including the inability to pull through parking spots and the fear of a mistake in the program if she purchases a new vehicle.

“I’ll probably end up with a ticket sometime during there, if I had to guess,” she said.

Other employees who are unwilling or unable to pay for a permit choose instead to compete with students for open spots on nearby streets. “Monday through Friday, if I’m here before 7 o’clock then I get a parking spot. When I come in [later], I feel like I have to steal somebody’s parking spot just to get here. It kind of sucks,” said Chad Frank, a supervisor at the Hot Spot, the resident dining hall on north campus.

Frank, who has worked at NAU for nine years, used to park off campus near a bus stop so he could ride the bus into work every day, but now has to find other options to avoid paying for parking on campus or downtown.

“It’s great that it’s a dollar [hourly to park downtown], but sometimes we don’t have a dollar to spare to even do that,” Frank said.

This year, permits have increased by $20 for employee permits and $50 for garage permits. Stam attributed the change to “rising maintenance costs.”

Permit prices at NAU still remain below those of other in-state universities, though.

Lot- or street-specific parking at the University of Arizona costs $610 for the year, while permits for the Arizona State University Tempe campus range from $200 to nearly $800. ASU employees have a discount for permits in a specific lot.

NAU offers no such discounts for its employees, who must pay the same price as students – $465 for the year – to park on campus.

Stam said her department is financially self-funded and uses the profits from permit sales to fund repairs to parking lots and garages, which total more than $1 million annually.

Other NAU transit plans in the works include adding bicycle registration and locker rentals to a database for better tracking, updating parking signs for legibility and creating new brochures to better explain parking procedures for both on-campus residents and commuters.

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