Berkeley overhauled its residential parking permit system in July — putting applications online and ditching bumper stickers. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Sometimes making things easier can be harder than you thought.

That certainly was the case for the city of Berkeley, which overhauled its residential parking permit system in July — putting applications online and ditching bumper stickers — to modernize the program and make it more efficient.

But the transition to the new system, called Passport, was not without its challenges. The city had planned to begin permit enforcement in August but put it off for nearly two months because so many issues arose. In fact, residential parking enforcement in the city was on hold from June 30 until Sept. 25, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said last week. A number of readers asked Berkeleyside to get answers from the city about what exactly happened, with an eye toward avoiding those problems in the future.

The city has struggled in recent years to find a way to make its approach to parking enforcement pencil out. In the spring, staff told the Berkeley City Council that residents aren’t getting what they pay for in terms of enforcement and that the city cannot afford to expand the program, despite neighborhood demand. To fix the problems, the city plans to increase some of its parking permit fees next year so it can hire more staff and write more tickets.

Staff wanted to increase fees this year, but held back to allow for more input and consideration by city officials. The city did adjust several aspects of its parking program, however, stiffening penalties for non-residents who park near campus on football game days and launching Passport so people to get parking permits and pay their tickets online.

The city created its residential parking permit (RPP) system in 1980 “to protect Berkeley residential neighborhoods from an influx of non-resident vehicles and related traffic” and make it easier for locals to park. As of this year, about 9,500 households in 16 zones — representing about 14,000 permits — were part of the program, which limits parking in most RPP areas to two hours on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. In some areas, parking is also regulated on Saturdays.

The city says the Passport program is the “first of its kind in the Bay Area” to use license plates as the permit itself.

Until this year, residents had to mail in a paper application with supporting documentation — such as their license and registration information — to get their parking permits each year. Staff would review the paperwork and, weeks later, mail back the permit bumper stickers, Chakko said in an interview with Berkeleyside.

In 2014, the city gave residents the option to pay for permits online, but they still had to submit paper applications, which required staff review.

This summer, for the first time ever, the city put the whole process online with the goal of instant approval. In addition to the streamlined application, the city simplified the permit itself by using license plates, rather than bumper stickers, to determine permit status during enforcement operations. The city has been using automated license plate readers since 2016 and realized its parking enforcement staff could simply use those readers in RPP neighborhoods. Permit stickers became redundant for them.

The city describes the Passport program as “innovative” and says it is the “first of its kind in the Bay Area” to use license plates as the permit itself.

Berkeley planned to launch Passport on July 1, according to its first announcement, which came out June 25, but there were immediate hitches. Within days, the city published a second announcement to say the launch had been delayed until July 22, “allowing us time to verify data and take other steps for a new system.”

Chakko told Berkeleyside that the biggest hurdle in the transition involved the addresses in its permit database. In some cases, people entered their addresses and it didn’t match what was in the system. That required manual checks to confirm the address was legitimate. An even bigger problem, he said, was that many of the permit addresses weren’t in the city’s database at all. In other cases, linking the address to the proper permit zone proved difficult.

Chakko said he did not know why so many problems came up with the addresses.

“I don’t know who did what,” he said. “But that’s the city’s responsibility — no matter what. We should get that right.”

Some readers who tried to use Passport early on told Berkeleyside it had been “impossible to register” at first, and that the system seemed “broken.” One reader said the overall experience had been a “total fail.”

One reader said the overall experience had been a “total fail.” Others said they were happy with the results.

“First I got a letter with the information I needed to renew. But when I went to the website, there was a notice that they weren’t ready yet and I should check back in a few weeks. So I saved the papers and then went back to renew and it said my permits had expired and it wouldn’t let me renew them,” she told Berkeleyside. “I called customer service three times, left my number twice and only got a response on the fourth try. They’ve informed me that I have to go online and register as though the permits are brand new, with all the supporting documentation. I’ve lived in the same house for 20 years and had the same car for a decade. Ridiculous!”

Community members described the process as bewildering and said it was fraught with conflicting information. Some said they didn’t get the option to renew their old permits, or were told the permits had expired even though no deadline had been mentioned in the city’s letter about Passport. Some said they never even got that letter.

Other readers said they gave up on the online system and simply did it the old-fashioned way, using snail mail or visiting the permit office in person. For the most part, readers said that worked out well. But, for others, questions still remained.

“It wasn’t functioning when I first tried, so I mailed in a check with forms (and the permit numbers for each car on the check),” one reader told Berkeleyside. “I received an email confirmation for one car. Still don’t know if the other one was renewed.”

She wasn’t alone. Other readers were stumped about why they had gotten approval for one vehicle in the household but not the other.

“This seems to show what a shambles the process behind the scenes must be,” one man told Berkeleyside.

As part of the Passport launch, the city sent codes to residents, via the U.S. Postal Service, so they could renew their permits faster online. But then the city pushed back the launch date to July 22, which created problems because the link codes were only good until July 31 (despite city messaging saying the codes would be good through August). That created confusion when the codes failed to work. People who called the city about the code issues were told to register in person

Initially, the city had hoped to begin enforcement Aug. 1, then later said staff wouldn’t enforce permit time limits until Sept. 1. In the end, RPP enforcement didn’t actually begin until Sept. 25, Chakko said, to ensure all payments and paperwork had been processed.

“We certainly wanted to start earlier,” he said. “What we didn’t want to do was give tickets to somebody who might have paid. We felt like that was the right thing to do, just to be sure.”

While the city was getting the new system up and running, there was a grace period on parking fines and penalties. At least one reader told Berkeleyside his fines had accrued anyway, but that that city ultimately fixed the problem. Chakko said anyone who has questions about a ticket issued during the transition can call Berkeley’s 311 service center to speak with city staff. Those outside the city can reach the same people by calling 510-981-2489.

“We’re not going to charge somebody fines or give them tickets if they’ve paid [for a permit],” he said. “If we make a mistake, we want to own up to it and we want to rectify it.”

“This first year of implementation was definitely hard. Part of it is being willing to take risks to change processes that are complicated.” — City spokesman Matthai Chakko

He said he wasn’t sure what percentage of applicants had trouble, but noted that it had taken a lot of staff time to handle all the glitches.

“This first year of implementation was definitely hard,” he said. “Our goal is to make it a long-term change that’s much easier for the public and the city as well. Part of it is being willing to take risks to change processes that are complicated.”

The new system is complex, in part, because it brings together services and staff that, in the past, were separate. Passport includes a new parking ticket payment system, which involves police and finance staff. And the license plate readers will help the city collect data for its goBerkeley program, which is how transportation staff measures parking demand around the city to determine how to adjust meter and garage pricing.

Chakko noted that, for those concerned about privacy, the city keeps its parking data for just 30 days unless there’s a citation or other violation. In that case, the information is kept for one year. The city says its parking data is held in “a closed system” and is not linked to the DMV or any other external agencies.

Chakko said he believes the “hiccups” of the first year will not happen again. Historically, during the days of paper applications, RPP enforcement didn’t begin until October so that everything could be processed. The goal for 2020 will be to launch parking enforcement July 1, said Chakko.

“That would be the earliest we’ve ever done it,” he said. “It’s frustrating to have these kinds of launch problems. At the same time, we know that, in the future, it will be a lot faster and a lot easier.”

Not everyone had trouble with Passport in its inaugural year. A number of readers told Berkeleyside that, once the system was up and running, they were happy with the results.

“Super easy, way better than waiting 6+ weeks to receive the stickers. I only wish they did this before the stickers ruined the paint on my car,” one reader wrote on Facebook.

Some community members said they aren’t so thrilled to see the stickers go, however, as “now it will be basically impossible to determine whether an unfamiliar car in one’s neighborhood has a parking permit.”

Philip Soffer described his Passport experience as “excellent and hassle-free!” He said he liked how easy it had been to add a new vehicle to his household and upload the required documentation without having to make a trip to city offices. He also said he was glad to see permit stickers become a thing of the past.

“The parking enforcement people have license plate scanners now,” he told Berkeleyside. “Oh brave new world!”

Chakko said those scanners should make parking enforcement more efficient so that, even though neighbors won’t be able to tell whether a non-resident is on the block, parking staff will.

Bumper stickers aren’t the only thing getting cut as part of the update to the parking program. Those who use Passport to renew their permits in the future will no longer get paper mail from the city about it, which will also cut down on waste.

In their feedback to Berkeleyside, readers noted that, as of September, visitor permits weren’t yet an option to purchase online.

“It went smoothly for me, but did not save a trip to the office because you can’t order the visitor parking permits online,” one said. “Maybe next year.”

According to the city, visitor permits will be available online “in the fall.” It was unclear as of publication time whether that feature has launched.

More parking permit changes — and fee increases — on the horizon

For those who haven’t bought their parking permits for 2019-20, note that the city does not pro-rate the annual permit on a rolling basis, but it does offer a six-month permit (costing $33) that will be good starting in January.

As it stands, according to the current proposal for the future of the program, staff has recommended that the city should keep the permit fee for one vehicle at $66 for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020. The permit fee for a second and third vehicle would increase to $96 and $126, respectively. People with more than three vehicles would need to seek a waiver for permits for them, which would include a $100 surcharge on top of the rate for the third vehicle.

“Graduated pricing would be more equitable since those who own more cars and have more impact on neighborhood parking would pay a greater share of the Program cost,” staff wrote in a Sept. 10 report. The idea for the graduated fee came from Councilwoman Rashi Kesarwani as an alternative to a staff proposal to increase parking permit costs across the board.

According to the city, there were 9,500 accounts with residential parking permits in 2019. Of those, 66% had one vehicle, 25% had two, 8% had three and just over 1% had four or more.

Parking permits for community-serving facilities and merchants are set to increase by 30%, to $108 and $241, respectively, in July 2020.

Originally, staff had suggested parking permit fee hikes that would have “increased all permit fees by an average of 37%” to pay for six new parking enforcement officers, one new supervisor and “associated equipment,” according to the staff report.

The expansion of the program would allow for more RPP enforcement, particularly on Cal game days, as well as the ability to expand RPP boundaries in response to community demand. The proposed fee increases are in line with council direction to staff to make the city’s parking enforcement program cost-neutral so it pays for itself.

“We’re already stretched pretty thin,” staff told the City Council during a meeting in September. “The staffing is very important and it needs funding.”

Under the new proposal, people who live within two blocks of a major commercial zone would become eligible to request enforcement — through an application process — once more staff is available.

During the September discussion of the parking permit program, council took no action. Officials are slated to receive another report about the proposed fees in early 2020 to allow for questions and debate before any changes are adopted.

Read more about the RPP program on the city website. Apply online for a Berkeley parking permit. Questions? The city says residents can call 311 for help.

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...