David Hegarty insists that parking regulations are not what they seem, if you believe they dictate indisputable prohibitions: No parking during Monday morning street cleaning. No parking after 6 p.m. without a residential parking permit. Two-hour parking only during stadium events.
Chances are, the law actually says much more than that, with room for error and interpretation. In reality, you cannot park on the street during Monday morning street cleaning, assuming that your car is within 100 feet of a mandated sign informing you of said street cleaning, assuming that sign isn't blocked by an overgrown oak, assuming the ticket recorded your VIN correctly, assuming the officer who gave it to you was right that it was, in fact, Monday morning.
"What I always tell people is that the parking regulations aren’t black-and-white," says Hegarty, the co-creator of a shrewd new app that aims to help users wrangle out of parking tickets (seemingly unjust parking tickets, that is). "There’s not like a manual in City Hall that says 'these are the parking violations.' Ordinances get passed, statutes get passed." Regulations pile up on top of each other. They come down from the city and the state. "It’s actually ferociously complicated. Each ordinance has 30 to 40 lines of fine print, written in non-clear legalese."
The app – simply called Fixed – navigates all that fine print for you, with the help of legal researchers (mostly law students on contract). It's so far in beta in San Francisco with fewer than 1,000 users. Hegarty and co-creators David Sanghera and DJ Burdick are hoping to have it in the iPhone app store by the end of the month, where it will gradually become available to a wait list of some 25,000 San Franciscans. From there, Fixed is angling to move to other cities, where the idea at its core – leveraging technology to lower the burden of accessing laws and interacting with government – will test public agencies that field these appeals.
Cities, after all, love this kind of innovation when it helps small businesses to apply for a permit, or neighbors to plan a block party. But when it helps drivers outsmart their parking citations?
The app works like this: Users snap a photo of their parking ticket. Based on the type of citation (street cleaning, expired meter, etc.), the app responds with several suggested errors commonly associated with the violation. Was the street cleaning sign visible? Did the parking officer record your VIN number correctly? Was the meter broken? Based on the answers, the app prompts users to collect additional photographic evidence from the scene. Then it compiles a letter contesting the citation. Users digitally sign the document, and Fixed (snail)mails it to the city on their behalf.
The appeals process in San Francisco can have up to three rounds, all of which Fixed can handle for you, save the last-ditch confrontation in court if users are still unhappy with the decision (Hegarty hasn't figured out yet if that step requires a licensed attorney). Fixed handles all of the correspondence. The app only charges users if it successfully contests a citation, taking 25 percent of the original fine.
According to the city's own data, San Francisco issued about 1.5 million parking citations last year. About 5 percent of them were contested, and 34 percent of those were thrown out. Hegarty figures that's the low end for the app's success rate, given that it will use more in-depth research on parking regulations than most people marshal on their own.
For now, Fixed largely relies on human eyes to assess the tickets. But the more citations Fixed processes, the better it will become at automatically triaging them and handicapping the errors common to each citation type. Eventually, Hegarty hopes the app will be able to predict the errors and citation types most common to individual streets.
Already, the app flags contested tickets into four categories of protest. There are factual errors – maybe the officer misinterpreted the day on the sign. There are legal errors, perhaps when a car is parked more than 100 feet from an applicable sign. There are procedural errors (maybe the officer wrote you a ticket before the street cleaner came through instead of afterward). And then there are what Hegarty calls "appeals to fairness." He got a ticket once for having no residential parking permit, despite the fact that he had demonstrably applied for one two months earlier.
No matter how sophisticated the app becomes, it will always require local contractors in new cities to pour through parking regulations.
"It’s not as much work as you'd think it is," Hegarty says. "We've found that a legal researcher with about 20 hours of work can cover the top 10 citations for a city, which account for about 95 percent of tickets."
Fixed also wants to make that legal research open-source, so that any determined private citizen can contribute to it. In that way, the app may tap into a deeper angst over parking tickets – not simply that most of us hate to pay them, but that in many places they've come to feel like a municipal racket.
"The city has been treating parking funds as a revenue source, and we don’t think that’s right," Hegarty says. "Parking fines are meant to be a deterrent so people don’t do adverse behavior that effects everyone. The reason people feel so unfairly treated by them is that they become a revenue source for the city, that they jack up the price of them every year."
He insists that the app isn't meant to be adversarial to City Hall, although it could clearly drive up the case load of municipal employees who field contested tickets. It's tough to argue, though, that the public shouldn't get to leverage the fine print in city regulations with the same ease that bureaucrats can.