According to an article published in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix over the weekend, a programming error in the City of Saskatoon's parking meters allows drivers to park free under a specific circumstance that is becoming ever more widely known and exploited (and with the article's publication, likely more so).
A bit of background: Back in 2001, Saskatoon introduced new electronic parking meters that would accept, in addition to coins, electronic payment by cell phone or payment through the use of a smart parking card called a CITYCARD (see PDF for an earlier Star Phoenix story on its introduction). As described on the Saskatoon parking services group page:
"The CITYCARD can be used in place of coins to purchase the maximum time allowable on a City parking meter. Users can then redeem any unused time back onto the card before leaving the parking stall."
However, in January of 2009, sales of CITYCARD ended because, Saskatoon's parking services says, "...the card is no longer in production or available from the supplier." However, existing CITYCARDs would still be honored.
In January of this year, the option of paying for parking using a cell phone was discontinued as the agreement with service provider had ended.
Anyway, at least a year ago, someone discovered a flaw in the meters. As described by the Star Phoenix:
"The software for the meters has a bug that allows parking meters to be refilled for free if the same parking card is used and the meter has fully expired. If repeated for an entire day, the driver parks for free."
That is, of course, unless you need to leave before time on meter has fully expired (for which you would be charged for the time used) or a parking enforcement officer is there to interrupt the sequence, and possibly give you a ticket for staying beyond the 2-hour maximum allowed.
Star Phoenix reporters recently observed a number of people apparently exploiting the software flaw. When asked about it, many of them denied knowing anything about the glitch, although some others—who did not want to be identified—admitted to having exploited it for some time. How the Star Phoenix reporters came to hear about the situation wasn't explained in the story.
The Star Phoenix story states that Saskatoon parking services officials have known about the problem for five years. However, the paper says,
"...the decision was made to increase enforcement rather than fix the error in the programming in the smart card's chip, which would cost C$40,000. The parking card makes up seven per cent of about C$5 million in parking revenue."
The parking authorities told the Star Phoenix that the lost revenue and additional costs of additional enforcement are less than paying to fix the software bug.
Even though the Star Phoenix story will no doubt entice others with CITYCARDs to try to cheat the system, Saskatoon parking services officials say that new electronic meters are coming next year that will take away that option.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.