Berkeley has made a number of changes in recent years to try to improve the parking experience and increase turnover in high-demand zones. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to ramp up parking enforcement by adding 15 automated license plate readers to the small pilot program it launched last year.

The new license plate readers will make parking enforcement more efficient, said city staff, and will help the city collect data it has used in recent years to improve parking availability in high-traffic areas. The $1.2 million contract for the purchase will be paid for with Federal Highway Administration dollars that would otherwise need to be returned. The license plate readers are also used to “identify stolen vehicles and parking scofflaws,” the city said.

Some council members said they are worried that the poor are more likely to face serious consequences related to tickets, because they have less money to pay for them, and may not have the luxury of taking public transportation to their jobs. Several officials and members of the public said they are also concerned about the data that’s collected, and who gets to see it.

“I don’t believe Berkeley should be spending money on building out the apparatus of the surveillance state,” one local resident told council. City staff, including a Berkeley police lieutenant, said the parking enforcement data is anonymized and is not shared outside Berkeley.

The city said the expanded data will help with the goBerkeley campaign it began in 2013 to make parking around town easier by tweaking fees and time limits in response to demand. Most council members said Tuesday night that program has been successful and should be supported. Instead of sending people out for months with clipboards, as in the past, the automated readers will collect data about parking behavior more quickly, accurately and easily as parking enforcement officers drive around on their shifts, staff said. That data will help Berkeley continue to improve parking pricing and time limits downtown, in the Elmwood and Southside — and perhaps later in more neighborhoods.

The city did not say how much more money it might bring in as a result of its ramped-up ticketing efforts. Last year, the city equipped five parking enforcement officers, out of 20, with the automated license plate readers. All 20 will have the tool once the purchase goes through.

Council has previously discussed expanding Berkeley’s residential parking permit (RPP) program in response to neighborhood concerns about how hard it can be to find a spot in some areas of town. Some new neighborhoods are likely to require permits in the future, officials said Tuesday. There are currently 14 permit zones, which span 4 square miles. The city also has more than 4,000 metered parking spaces, according to the staff report.

“The long-term vision of parking management in Berkeley is to employ evidence-based, or data-driven decision making” to tailor Berkeley’s parking policies and change driver behavior, according to the report.

Staff said the license plate readers will help parking enforcement officers cover more ground — especially if permit zones increase, and lead to fewer workers’ compensation claims.

“The physical chalking of tires is, all day long, hitting tires with a stick, and causes a lot of shoulder injuries,” city transportation manager Farid Javandel told council. Automatic license plate readers use digital cameras and software to capture still images and transform them into a text readout of license plates.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín took a strong position in support of the program expansion: “The reason we fine people is because they violate our parking rules,” he said.

Arreguín said the city, through goBerkeley, has committed to finding ways to make it easier to park in Berkeley, and that the license plate readers will help. Arreguín said residents, visitors and business owners all benefit from goBerkeley, which is designed to increase turnover and decrease greenhouse gas emissions by cutting down on drivers “circling” to find a spot.

Northwest Berkeley Councilwoman Linda Maio said she is concerned for her constituents, such as those with babies, who feel they can’t leave home in their cars to run quick errands because they won’t be able to park when they get home. Maio said stepped-up enforcement will help those residents and encourage people with more flexibility to “make alternative choices rather than driving and taking the easy way out.”

Councilman Ben Bartlett, from South Berkeley, said he could not support the program because those most impacted would be apartment dwellers without driveways, low-income people and those living check to check: “All those people I’m here to protect, they’re the ones who suffer from tickets,” he said. “I’m definitely not going to support this because I do not believe in blanketing people with excessive fines.”

Councilwoman Lori Droste, who represents southeast Berkeley, said many of those same individuals also experience increased asthma rates due to heightened exposure to greenhouse gas emissions — which programs such as goBerkeley are trying to reduce.

Southside Councilman Kriss Worthington concurred: “To reject this money and this program would be a serious setback to our environmental program.”

As part of its Climate Action Plan, the city is working to decrease greenhouse gas emissions significantly. The city has set a target of a 33% reduction by 2020, and an 80% reduction by 2050. City staff has said a broad range of changes still need to take place to meet those targets, however.

Worthington called the staff proposal related to the license plate reader contract “very wise and thoughtful,” and said it was a good example of using technology in smart ways to help the city meet its goals, save money, improve staff health and better the quality of life in Berkeley. “This small investment will have longtime benefits,” he said.

Worthington said, too, for those concerned about the potential for abuse related to surveillance, that he is working on a surveillance policy with the Police Review Commission. He promised it would be, when complete, one of the strongest policies around.

City manager Dee Williams-Ridley said the city does not share its automated license plate data with outside law enforcement agencies, or anyone outside the city.

“This has never been done before and there’s no intent to do so in the future,” she said.

Council members Cheryl Davila, Sophie Hahn and Ben Bartlett voted against the contract to purchase the new license plate readers, while the other officials voted in favor.

“I’m not sure we aren’t efficient enough at this time,” said Hahn, who represents North Berkeley. “We have lots of rules and laws that we choose not to enforce at 100%, and we actually think that has some social utility.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...