Parking Charge Goes To Volkswagen

PayByPhone app adds a flat fee of 25 cents per transaction 

Editor’s Note: I thought this was a good companion piece to go with the front page article. It initially appeared on January 18, 2020 on the Northwest Citizien website. 

by Dick Conoboy 

The much touted PayByPhone option to pay for your parking in Bellingham is owned by Volkswagen Financial Services AG, a subgroup of the notorious Volkswagen AG that has been fined billions of dollars in a scandal of major proportions over emissions. The Financial Services arm of Volkswagen has its mitts in parking operations all over the United States and collects millions of dollars in what amounts to a semi-privatization of parking. Once connected to the PayByPhone app, not only is your vehicle tracked but your cell phone as well. Your financial institution or credit/debit card is also tracked and susceptible to hackers. 

Like cities across the United States, Bellingham (piggybacking on a PayByPhone contract with Seattle) has joined with a corporation for convenience sake while rendering its citizens vulnerable and helping to bloat the revenue of multinational firms of questionable reputation. Those earnings never make it back to U.S. shores, let alone the cities and citizens from which they are extracted.

Each time you pay for parking in Bellingham with your phone, 25 cents goes directly to PayByPhone. That 25 cent PayByPhone transaction for 15 minutes on the meter/kiosk doubles your cost to 50 cents. Enter on the phone app $1.00 to the meter/kiosk for one hour and you are charged $1.25 (25 percent additional) and that add-on of 25 cents bypasses the city and goes into the coffers of the corporation. 

You will also want to read the fine print in your “agreement” with PayByPhone, which is comprised of 13 pages of gobbledygook and links to other policies to which you also agree, such as binding arbitration. In other words you can’t take them to court but they can sue the shit out of you if you get uppity. Since your agreement is with PayByPhone, the city can just shrug its shoulders. “What, me worry?”

Nota bene:
“14. Dispute resolution and confidential arbitration:

Any dispute relating in any way to the services offered by PayByPhone not resolved in accordance with the preceding Section 13 shall be submitted to confidential arbitration in Vancouver, British Columbia, except that, to the extent you have in any manner violated or threatened to violate PayByPhone’s intellectual property rights, PayByPhone may seek injunctive or other appropriate relief in any Provincial or Federal court in the Province of British Columbia, and you consent to exclusive jurisdiction and venue in such courts. Arbitration under this agreement shall be conducted under the rules then prevailing of the Canadian Arbitration Association conducted by a single arbitrator. The arbitrator’s award shall be binding and may be entered as a judgment in any court of competent jurisdiction. To the fullest extent permitted by applicable law, no arbitration under this Agreement shall be joined to an arbitration involving any other party subject to this Agreement, whether through class arbitration proceedings or otherwise.” 

And, as with most apps of this kind, your “account information” may be shared with just about anybody including those who may eventually hack the system for whatever nefarious purposes they might have.

“15. Disclosure of account information to third parties 

From time to time, subject to any applicable financial privacy laws or other laws or regulations, we may provide information about you and the Account: 

 To parking and payment companies with whom we have relationships.

 In response to any subpoena, summons, court or administrative order, or other legal process which we believe requires our compliance.

 In connection with collection of indebtedness or to report losses incurred by us.

 In compliance with any agreement between us and a professional, regulatory or disciplinary body.

 In connection with potential commercial transactions or reorganizations.

 To carefully selected service providers and merchant partners who help us meet your needs by providing or offering our services (“Network of Merchant and Service Providers”).”

Note that PayByPhone “carefully” selects service providers and merchant partners because they have YOUR needs at heart.
If this argle-bargle does not set off your bullshit alarm, nothing ever will. 

Of course, the city loves PayByPhone. This is from City of Bellingham’s Superintendent of Traffic/Communications/Fleet & Facilities Clark Williams (who was most helpful to me with his explanations), in an email exchange with me last year: 

“We love this arrangement because the City has zero dollars invested in software costs or subscription fees. We are merely passing along the convenience fee charged to the parkers back to PayByPhone. And our parking customers seem to love the convenient ease of use. Adoption rates have grown from 3,375 transactions in Jan. 2017 to 21,267 transactions in Jan. 2019. AND, it saves us from spending time manually collecting and depositing quarters from the meters.”

That is some “nickel and diming” — to the tune of $5,000-plus per year. Another case of using someone else’s property (our parking spaces) to make money by not doing much at all other than creating a computer program — much like Uber does to car owners and AirBnB does to property owners. Multiply that $5,000 by hundreds or thousands of cities (some vastly greater in population than Bellingham) and you are talking serious money.

Williams goes on to say: 

“The app and credit card processing is fully PCI compliant for data security, and the City doesn’t see any of the users’ information except your license plate, where you parked, and for how long. That info is needed so we can enforce paid parking time limits, because when you use the app, the parking meter is still blinking expired. All of our parking enforcement is done via license plate reader technology. And having a license plate number is just a virtual parking permit sticker. We wouldn’t know who the driver or registered owner of the vehicle was without going through Dept. of Licensing.”

How many times have you heard those security assurances? Maybe from the security mavens at Facebook or Capital One for example? And who really wants their license plates to be tracked? I don’t. It ain’t surveillance until it is. Now your license plate is a “parking sticker”? What happened to the numbered parking stalls we used to have? No tracking there. Get the picture (wink, wink)? If not, the local security video system will get you. No place to hide. Even your neighbor watches via her “Ring” video doorbell. 

Quoth Juvenal, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Who watches the watchers?)

To Belllingham’s credit, at least for the moment, it has not sold off its parking meter system in its totality as the city of Chicago did about a decade ago. The system there is now run by Chicago Parking Meters who have a 75-year lease. When Chicagoans are released from this bondage, I will be 150 years old. In the meantime in Bellingham, I will keep an ample supply of coins in my car. You should, too.  


Dick Conoboy is a local writer and activist who is part owner of NWCitizen, an online news site. Dick has served on the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Commission, as a Senior Volunteer at the Bellingham Police Department, and as a board member of the Samish Neighborhood Association. He is a current member of the Whatcom County Veterans Advisory Board. He worked crowd control for over a decade at WWU athletic events and for two years operated the scoreboard for the WWU Women’s Softball team.

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