Adoption of license plate readers stirs anxieties over privacy | February 26, 2021 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - February 26, 2021

Adoption of license plate readers stirs anxieties over privacy

City of Palo Alto would keep license plate images for 96 hours — or five years

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's newest tool for parking management is expected to save money, provide data and help the city understand — and resolve — tensions between local employees and residents in neighborhoods next to commercial districts.

But some of these same residents also believe that the city's new automated license plate readers will threaten their privacy and inadvertently worsen the very problem that the city is trying to alleviate: the number of employees who park their vehicles in residential areas, which was high before the COVID-19 pandemic and which is expected to return once the health crisis subsides.

The City Council tried to balance these two priorities — managing parking and managing privacy — on Monday night when it unanimously approved spending $140,000 to buy and install two automated license plate readers. The cameras, which will be attached to parking-enforcement vehicles, will be rolled out in the city's Residential Preferential Parking districts and potentially implemented at a later date in public garages and lots.

The city has been considering the technology since at least 2017, when a report by the city's consultant, Dixon Resources, recommended it as part of a broader plan to manage parking throughout the city, along with parking meters and new mobile apps to help visitors pay for spots. Duncan Solutions is the vendor of the technology.

Chief Transportation Official Philip Kamhi said the license-plate reader program will bring two major benefits: It will reduce the city's reliance on contractors who enforce the city's Residential Preferential Parking programs; and it will allow the city to gather data about parking availability in neighborhoods around downtown and California Avenue.

"This means the city can use less resources and patrol areas more quickly, thus preventing illegal parkers from intruding into neighborhoods or attempting to circumvent rules by moving their cars a few blocks," Kamhi said.

Nathan Baird, the city's parking manager, said the current parking enforcement program is projected to cost $756,159 this fiscal year. Installing license plate readers would provide immediate and ongoing cost savings: The cost would shrink to $329,159 — a savings of $427,000 — this fiscal year. In fiscal years 2022 and 2023, the switch would save $267,000 and $287,899, respectively.

In addition, the technology "provides invaluable data for understanding how well parking program measures are doing and addressing parking demand over time," he said.

Not everyone, however, is thrilled about the way the new technology is being rolled out.

John Guislin, a Crescent Park resident who served on a stakeholder group that helped establish downtown's residential parking program, objected to the impact on privacy.

"Surveillance technology is not acceptable in residential neighborhoods where families have a right to privacy," Guilin wrote in a letter to the council.

To address privacy concerns, city staff proposed policies on data collection: If a vehicle is not involved in a citation, the city would store its license plate image for a maximum of 96 hours before it is automatically deleted. However, images and license plate numbers attached to parking citations would be retained for five years.

Also, license plate data "shall be used only by the city and authorized vendors for parking enforcement and data collection purposes."

While parking occupancy data would be made available to the public, it would "never include specific license plate numbers," according to the policy.

Guislin and other residents also questioned the city's decision to debut the technology in residential neighborhoods. Guislin suggested that the city should experiment with the technology in the business core, where garages and parking lots would benefit from improved capacity management.

"Surveillance technology use is acceptable in commercial areas because people have a lower expectation of privacy when engaged in commercial transactions," Guislin wrote to the council. Others suggested that, in debuting the license plate readers, the city is straying from its broader effort to deter employees from parking in neighborhoods.

"Why are you surveilling residents and maximizing parking in residential areas if the need is elsewhere?" resident Carol Scott asked the council on Monday.

Council members on Monday acknowledged the privacy concerns but concluded that the city's safeguards are sufficient to ensure that private information will not be collected or released. They also suggested that the city find ways to expand the use of automated license plate readers to other parts of the city, including the newly constructed garage on Sherman Avenue in the California Avenue business district. Council member Greg Tanaka suggested installing them at garage entrances so that the city will know exactly who is using these facilities. Council member Greer Stone and Mayor Tom DuBois also said they would like to see the technology in use elsewhere in the city.

"I understand the concerns we heard from the public," DuBois said. "I think the intentions are correct and the goals are correct. I support this and I hope we can get to the rest of the areas as quickly as we can throughout the city."

But Chief Transportation Official Kamhi noted that bringing the technology to city garages carries its own complications. Parking regulations in downtown — which is divided into "color zones" and which includes areas with varying time limits — are much more complex than they are in residential neighborhoods, making the use of license plate readers there more complicated. Another wrinkle is opposition from the city's employee unions, which have expressed their own privacy concerns about the license plate readers.

And while some residents and council members questioned the need to install the technology at a time when parking demand is unusually low, Kamhi stressed the need for the city to prepare for the return of commuters.

"It's going to take us some time to get it started out there," Kamhi said. "We anticipate parking demand is going to be low for a while, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be prepared for parking demand's return, and noting that, we're looking to restart commercial and residential enforcement."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at [email protected]


Posted by em.a18
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 23, 2021 at 6:42 am

em.a18 is a registered user.

Does the lower cost mean that we will see the cost of permits to drop by 50%? Hurray.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2021 at 9:00 am

Bystander is a registered user.

What should be done is helping drivers park rather than making it more difficult.

We have been promised tech signs, payment apps, finding parking apps, etc. for years in Palo Alto. Instead we have had more difficulties in finding legal parking. Having spoken to people who drive around the Bay Area for their jobs they say that Palo Alto is one of the hardest places to find legal parking. Not just that there isn't enough but that it is so confusing knowing whether they can park in a certain "color" that they move on looking for somewhere easier to park. It is not always a matter of cost either, it is ease of payment. A contractor needing to work for an unknown number of hours near a certain client needs to be able to find somewhere to park and to pay easily to do so. In normal times this has been very difficult.

So if parking in the right places was made easier, it would mean that there would be less pressure on places where parking is not allowed.

It is time we became much more accommodating to those who want to visit our business areas rather than making it more difficult. It is time we lost the reputation of being the most difficult City in the Bay Area in which to find parking.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 23, 2021 at 9:24 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Bystander, excellent points! Where ARE the signs in the parking garages showing where the spots are and whether the garages are full? They've had such signs in Mountain View and elsewhere for decades.

WE only get promises and plans to hire more consultants for their gravy train.

Posted by SJW
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 23, 2021 at 10:52 am

SJW is a registered user.

FYI this is the second year we have paid for our permits without a benefit. Where's the meter maids? What's up with the City Parking Program? Just because Stanford is not in full session does not mean that the City can fall short of their part of the deal.

Posted by Carol Scott
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 23, 2021 at 11:56 am

Carol Scott is a registered user.

The cost savings that are being touted are very suspect. Time after time at last night's Council meeting, the City Staff expressed confusion about which costs were and were not included in their budget figures they presented. Mr. Tanaka kept asking -- after others had -- whether these were all fixed costs, whether all variable costs were included, etc. -- basic things. The Staff was ill-prepared to answer. Does anyone really believe that you can buy a system like this and not incur additional staff and vender-related costs to make it work?

And, even the City knows that the real benefit of and need for this technology is to maximize the use of municipal garages and lots -- including the very expensive one we just built at taxpayer expense to provide for business' parking needs in the Cal Ave. area. Yet, the City is looking for their keys under the street light because that is where the light is better. The Downtown RPP may need this technology, but what is the City's concern with maximizing the parking availability and "communicating the availability" of parking in residential areas, particularly RPPs that have no employee parking now?

The City is once again failing to manage its own expensive assets because it is "too difficult", and as they admitted, is using the neighborhoods as guinea pigs. And, by the way, a cost savings might be larger if the City stopped using Police Department CSOs to enforce parking in College Terrace.

It was only due to Council member Lydia Kuo once again taking care of residents' concerns that an important amendment was added to the proposal: parking availability is to be collected for the purpose of reducing commercial parking in residential neighborhoods -- and not to be used as a justification for increasing it whenever businesses say they need more. Thank you, Ms. Kuo. Well done.

Why is it that City employee's privacy is important, but not residents?

Posted by Carol Scott
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 23, 2021 at 11:58 am

Carol Scott is a registered user.

Thanks also to Council member Tanaka for his sensitivity to residents' concerns about privacy as has recently been expressed by commentators on Nextdoor. He brought up new proposed regulations that would require erasing personally identifying information after 24 hours, and not the 4 days that the City Staff is proposing. No one in the City was aware of this.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 23, 2021 at 12:49 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

And the city remains delusional about its ability to run a fiber internet service when it can't even get the city manager's survey password reset working or its much-heralded beta of its app to help us avoid roads under construction which quietly vanished after months of breathless promotion.

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 23, 2021 at 1:54 pm

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

A public street is a public street whether it is in a commercial area or a residential neighborhood. The privacy issue is ridiculous. This sounds like a good solution.

I live near the Mountain View border and I usually bike downtown. I am a senior with a bad hip, so I ride at a leisurely pace. It takes me, on average, 21 minutes--which is about the amount of time it would take me to drive and park downtown. (I ride Bryant, a lovely, quiet bicycle boulevard the whole way there. Easy, joyful.) Our planet is wheezing under the weight of greenhouse gas emissions. We whine about auto congestion and parking shortages. People complain about the safety problems that drivers create. Be part of the solution. Biking is easy and fun. Give it a try. In flat, temperate Palo Alto, biking is a breeze...and beats driving any day.

Posted by Come on!
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 23, 2021 at 10:32 pm

Come on! is a registered user.

Why does big tech always have to be the solution? This invasion into privacy isn’t worth the minimal benefits of this program. It also eliminates jobs, which isn’t good.

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