Miguel Vargas In Front of Car
San Francisco resident Miguel Vargas poses for a picture on Nov. 30 in front of his car along Berry Street after a restaurant shift. (Photo by David Mamaril Horowitz.)

As San Francisco rolls out new parking meter technology, some drivers find themselves paying to park, but still ending up with a ticket.

“Intuitively, you park, get out of your car and walk up to a meter and you pay it,” said East Bay resident Karl Carstensen, who was ticketed on Sept. 13 for an expired meter. “It’s the one right in front of your car.”

Carstensen, for example, had parked next to a pay station at 435 Brannan St. and purchased four hours’ parking. Yet, he was ticketed an hour later.

It’s unclear how frequently San Francisco parking control officers ticket drivers whose parking has not expired. 

What is clear is that there are at least two problems at hand. One is a technology issue with a minority of the new pay stations. The other is an online payment system that’s susceptible to human error, and subject to San Francisco’s unforgiving ticketing protocol.

Within an afternoon, Mission Local found five drivers who were ticketed for expired meters while they were legally parked. All of them had proof that the time they paid for hadn’t yet expired. 

And yet, none of the drivers found it easy to get their tickets dismissed. Three still owe the city money.

“I presented a copy of the citation, a copy of the receipt I got from the pay station showing the time stamp, and I had bank documentation to back it up,” Carstensen said. “And they still denied my online protest.”

His ticket was eventually rescinded, but not until a month later.

A technology ‘latency’ issue

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency told Mission Local that Carstensen was ticketed due to an “extremely rare” latency issue, a delay between a payment being made, and then being registered in an officer’s handheld device. 

In Carstensen’s case, the delay was evidently long enough to result in a ticket.

When informed of the SFMTA’s rationale by Mission Local, Carstensen replied “that sounds like total horseshit.”

Carstensen said this reason did not come up during a hearing he had with the SFMTA regarding his ticket.

Rather, in an email he shared with Mission Local, the hearing officer determined that Carstensen had paid for the wrong meter.

That would seem unlikely, since Carstensen had, after all, parked next to a pay station and then paid into it. 

And if latency was an issue, it was an issue of at least 52 minutes — an awfully long delay for the parking control officer’s machine not to be notified that a payment had been made. Many people park, pay for the meter, and then drive off in far fewer than 52 minutes. 

“That would mean an hour after I’d been parked there, the parking attendant still had no record of my payment in the system,” Carstensen said. “An hour of latency should be unacceptable. They should cease issuing citations for expired parking immediately if they’re experiencing equipment that has an hour of latency time.”

He added, “You can’t have latency of an hour if you’re allowing people to park for less than an hour; you’re always going to get a ticket if an officer comes by and checks it. I think that’s B.S.”

The SFMTA did not respond to an inquiry about the contradictory information at press time. 

The agency said it’s working to resolve the latency issue. It added that Carsensten’s issue was not due to signage differences, as he had proposed.

It’s possible that Carman Lam, a college student who works as a waitress at the Grand Nightclub in SoMa, was impacted by the same latency issue. 

On Oct. 29, several minutes before her 3 p.m. shift, she paid into a parking pay station near 625 Bryant St. The four-hour time limit meant that her parking expired at 6:55 p.m., so she returned at around 6:30 p.m. She had already been ticketed.

 “It’s pretty upsetting,”  she said.

Location confusion

Three times, Miguel Vargas has been hit with an $89 ticket when he still had money on the meter. 

Vargas got his first ticket after using the Pay-by-Phone system on Berry Street on Aug. 26. On Sept. 3, he was ticketed again before his paid time elapsed. Then, on Nov. 29, it happened again.

“It’s very unfortunate, and also very frustrating. I do pay the meter via ‘Pay-by-Phone,’ to go to work, only to come back to my car with a ticket when my meter was still running,” Vargas said. “It’s very tiring. I am doing my due diligence as a citizen by paying, only to still get ticketed.”

The SFMTA told Mission Local that in Vargas’ August and September tickets, he was fined because he paid for the wrong parking location through Pay-by-Phone. Vargas is certain he used the correct location, but it was his word against the parking control officer’s.

These instances show that the Pay-by-Phone system is at least somewhat prone to potential human error — and, when it happens, it’s the members of the general public who’ll pay the price. If either a driver, or a parking control officer, enters one digit of an eight-digit code incorrectly and isn’t careful, the driver can be ticketed regardless of whether they paid or not. 

This important code is called the location number, which drivers can find printed nearby at a pay station or a parking meter. Drivers enter this code into their phones when paying for parking through Pay-by-Phone, which requires them to call, download the application or go to the website on their phone and enter their location number, license plate and card information.

The parking control officer on Aug. 26 provided a different location from the one Vargas punched in, resulting in a ticket even though Vargas paid full price. The SFMTA told Mission Local that it appeared the ticket was issued correctly.

And here, the ticketing protocol is unforgiving: According to the SFMTA, this is how things should work — and, if Vargas’ tickets are anything to go by, the SFMTA has shown that it will take its employees’ word over a driver’s. 

This type of issue is rare for Pay-by-Phone as a whole, which states that it serves more than 60 million users across 10 countries in North America and Europe. Adam, a customer service representative for Pay-by-Phone, said he hears of the issue maybe two or three times out of an estimated 300 to 400 calls for assistance per week.

Instead of checking each block for the license plates that paid for that specific block, which officers typically do, multiple drivers in San Francisco pointed to what appeared an obvious solution: Why not check license plates for parking payments altogether

To drivers such as Cody G., who was ticketed during his parking reservation on Nov. 11, this solution seemed obvious.

Cody had paid for parking via Pay-by-Phone, but one digit of the printed location number on his parking meter had been scratched out. He guessed the digit incorrectly and got ticketed.

“You theoretically entered your license plate into a machine,” he said, adding that he has used Pay-by-Phone many times in Bay Area cities such as San Mateo and Redwood City, where he has never had issues. “The city should be like, ‘Oh, this person paid but just went to another’” parking station.

The SFMTA said parking control officers do not routinely check if license plates have been entered by drivers citywide who have already paid.

“If [parking control officers] also were required, when enforcing a block, to check the lists of paid license plates for several other nearby blocks, it would slow them down significantly,” the SFMTA told Mission Local. 

Meanwhile, Vargas’ third ticket, dated Nov. 29, showed what appears to be an error from the parking control officer.

The location numbers provided by Vargas and the parking control officer, again, diverged. However, both numbers, when entered into the Pay-by-Phone system, bring up the same block. 

It was dismissed on Nov. 30, but only following a Mission Local inquiry.

Vargas’ other two tickets remain. And, due to late penalties, he now owes $400.

“It’s very unfortunate, because I’m a working-class man,” he said. 

Protesting: Difficult and time-consuming

Karl Carstensen’s ticket was eventually dismissed, but not before he spent five to six hours figuring out how to protest, collecting evidence, having his initial protest denied by SFMTA and, finally, scheduling a virtual hearing and attending it. 

“If you paid, and you’re trying to do the right things, and you’re being an upstanding citizen and you still get a ticket, you feel really helpless,” Carstensen said. “I bet what’s happening is, a lot of people don’t want to deal with it, because they can’t fight City Hall, so they’re just going to pay it and move along.”

Despite sending evidence that showed they were still paying for parking when ticketed, Lam and Cody’s online protests were both denied. 

When Cody followed up on his protest, the SFMTA abruptly rescinded his ticket and called the dismissal a “courtesy.” Meanwhile, Vargas said that, between his two restaurant jobs, he simply couldn’t make the time to protest all three tickets.

Roseanne, another resident who was ticketed while still paying for parking through Pay-by-Phone, shelled out the $89 after her online protest was denied. This, she said, was $89 less she could send to her family in the Philippines. 

“I could fight it in court, but I’d have to take off work,” she said.

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David Mamaril Horowitz

David’s one of those San Francisco natives who gets excited whenever City College is mentioned. He has journalism degrees from there and San Francisco State University, graduating from the latter in May 2021. In college, David played five different roles as an editor at student news publications and reported as an intern for three local newspapers, mostly while waiting tables at the Alamo Drafthouse. His first job was at Mitchell's Ice Cream.

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  1. I have had the experience of being issued a parking ticket in error. I wrote my protest with appropriate documentation, but the protest was denied. I knew I was right, so I took it to the next step and went before a hearing officer. The ticket was eventually dismissed. I wonder what percentage of written protests for incorrectly issued tickets are automatically denied. I wonder if anyone even reads them? I am certain no one read mine. Once denied, I bet many people just give up because they don’t have the time or energy to take it to the next step and go before a hearing officer.

  2. I too was ticketed on Harrison. I put my info, and card into the machine that would allow me to be paid until 1:06 p.m. I went into Dunburi Ya restaurant and was back out with my order in about 6 or 7 minutes. I was given the ticket at 12:57 p.m. plus yet there was a ticket on my car. I did not have a receipt but I did have the information from my credit card that showed I paid the meter. Unfortunately it did not say where I paid it. I protested by filing an appeal. I lost the first appeal. Then I appealed a second time and I lost that one. I appealed a third time and I am now awaiting after almost 2 months for the decision. I have proof that I paid a meter at the time of my ticket. The officer at the hearing has been trying to imply that I paid the wrong meter. I am sure that it was the meter that was closest to my car. I am fearful that I will get a negative outcome due to the nature of San Francisco City Hall never give the average citizen a break. That is one of the reasons why San Francisco is such a cutthroat place to live. I have never had a courtesy pass by any San Francisco officials in the 20 years I’ve been living here. Always they want to stick it to you. But one thing I finally do believe is is that I paid the meter as I always do.
    On another note a month before I received my ticket I almost received another ticket at the same exact location by a meter dude who is writing me a ticket while I was waiting in line to pay the meter. I can only imagine that if I had not walked back to my car I would have found a ticket there and would have ended up paying that because they would never take the average citizens word for it. Maybe San Francisco needs to rethink its priorities and policies.

  3. I would think that SFMTA would embark on some damage control and take steps to clarify how Pay-by-Phone is to be used. We have the same parking system in San Mateo and I recall our local paper hyping that Pay-by-Phone payment was tracked by license plate # and this would allow the motorist to move within the area as long as there was still paid time left. I know now this was erroneous information. Luckily, I have have avoided receiving a ticket and thanks to Mission Local, I now know how the program works.

  4. I have seen less meter maids and regularly don’t pay the meters and have received no tickets during the pandemic. It seems that these tickets are in areas that sfmta is targeting. It pays to build a relationship with an enforcement officer. They are able to cancel most tickets the day they are written and they share what they are giving tickets for and what violations should be avoided.

    I fought a ticket a few years ago. The way the sfmta treats people who receive unfair tickets is designed to be miserable. I lived on a steep hill and had parked directly across the street from my home like I did a hundred times before. $271 ticket for parking in a disabled spot. The spot was inappropriate for disabled parking due to the slope and it was close to a side steeet that was flat if a disabled spot was needed. The curb was not painted and there was no sign SFMTA requires residents to pay the ticket before they will review it. I paid it and asked for a review noting there was no disabled spot on the entire block. The review request was unsuccessful. Over a month after the ticket and over a week after I scheduled an appeal, the spot became a disabled spot. I had photos of the spot not signed as disabled on the ticket date and photos of sfmta painting the curb blue 6 weeks after the ticket date. I showed up at the scheduled 9 am with a witness the date of the appeal. We waited till 11:10 am. An sfmta employee listened to us for15 minutes and collected our evidence. She said she needed to check their records and explained that she would research after her lunch. I explained my office and my witness’ office needed us. We were told that I would lose the appeal if I didnt wait and the ticket would be final She got back to us by 1:20. She had a copy of rhe work order to paint the curb 6 weeks after the ticket date. She said that she thought she could cancel the ticket, that a check would be mailed within 8 weeks for the $271 less a small fee for the appeal THIS TIME, she suggested I be more careful in the future. I told her that I’d be sure to check my crystal ball before I parked in the future for any future changes. SFMTA changed the spot back to not disabled within 2 weeks of the appeal.

    1. A fee for the appeal when you won??????? Is that remotelyl legal? Maybe there’s some law firm somewhere looking for a class action suite.

  5. I am a handicapped vet who has said plates on vehicle. For the past three years I shave had to deal with a very unprofessional parking maid with a Hitler complex and after making multiple complaints her supervisor just takes her word over my written and verbal complaints. She has wrongfully ticked my vehicle multiple times, ticketed me twice within ten minutes spread for street sweeping,after I made my complaints she pulled up and harassed and threatened me. Our cities employees are paid by our taxes so they for work for us but they instead take a military like attitude and try to suppress us. Another issue is being handicapped it’s very hard for me to go into there office. The closest handicapped spot is in garage and it is very far walk for a person in my condition which needs to use a cane.

  6. If SFMTA issues a ticket incorrectly, they should have to compensate the driver for time and frustration spent fighting their invalid system. If its as rare as they say, shouldn’t be an issue for budget.

  7. Who has oversight over the SFMTA? Whoever it is needs to do an internal audit of their practices, policies, and management….and make the findings public.

  8. this is the inevitable result as we progress towards allowing machines to control our lives.

    go skynet?

  9. when i mentioned to a “parking control officer” that it was impossible to read the meter where i had parked on Ocean Ave. he told me they would soon be replaced with this license plate scheme. then yesterday i had already parked in 2 different gray-curb spots in the Mission only to get out of the car and finally see the mile-high sign telling me i had to pay by phone or at a station, which i didn’t see anywhere. i hate cellphones, mine always gives me trouble and i never carry it with me. now The City insists that i do as well as provide them with data regarding exactly where i am when. just one more reason to leave the car in the driveway for 2 months at a time as i have been doing.

  10. Any lawyers reading this? I think there should be a class action to throw out all citations from these systems until they resolve their “latency” issue. So sick of this city. The city grifters-in-chief and police could not care less about local citizens and businesses being robbed of tens of millions by “petty” crime, but they somehow just never fail to enforce harmless parking violations.

  11. Politicians can be recalled but we have no recourse against the dictatorship of the SFMTA. Our “leaders” are not leading because very little is working correctly. I guess the city needs money so badly it has embraced thievery. Someone has to pay for the corruption and it is the law abiding citizens.

  12. Sad to hear that i’m not the only one that had this issue. I got a ticket 49 minutes after i paid the meter that i paid for 2 hours. I tried contesting it and received a letter denying it. Now its months later and I still haven’t paid my ticket because i’ve had to either pay my bills or pay the ticket. Disgusting how the city has become a greedy place.

  13. Just a thought: My understanding is that California license plates don’t use the letter “O” — they only use the number zero. Could it be that folks are typing the letter O instead of a zero when they pay at the kiosk? So when their plates get scanned, they don’t return a match.

    Also, SFMTA has stopped issuing stickers for residential parking permits. They’ve transitioned to scanning license plates for this as well. Any problems reported yet?

  14. Thanks for your work on this. This sounds like a problem for 7 on your side or one of those other investigative shows that looks into these issues and publishes the details widely. So hard to deal with rogue city agencies when they are coddled by the government and encouraged to dig into our pockets for funds. Voters need to consider who is listening to them and more people need to run for office if we are going to right these wrongs and turn SF back into the once civilized city it was.

  15. “If [parking control officers] also were required, when enforcing a block, to check the lists of paid license plates for several other nearby blocks, it would slow them down significantly,”
    Idiotic.
    First thing when issuing a ticket – the system checks the database to locate the licence plate number. If paid – area (or block or meter station) location is returned and no further action is taken if vehicle is within the area.
    If Pay-by-Phone does not work this way then they’re idiots.

    Additionally – having to enter an eight-digit code is a stupid UI complexity. The station already knows it’s location so that’s all that is necessary. More lunacy having to enter the exact parking spot. What difference does it make? You’ve paid for a spot in that station’s area.

    “The agency said it’s working to resolve the latency issue”
    Wow – what a balonium answer.

    You’ve received a receipt – the data is in the database.
    Possibilities – the meter person can retrieve the data – or there is a connectivity issue in retrieving the data or the mobile App/device has systemic problems and is not functioning correctly. With the latter two issues – no ticket can be issued – in a normal world.

    Since it seems Pay-by-Phone is working reasonably consistently in other areas, it would seem this is some kind of SFMTA implementation issue/fiasco.

    Our City government isn’t very good with technology – see SFUSD payroll kerfuffle.

    Seems the only thing working well with programs ‘n stuff is the election department.
    I hear we’re going to fix that.

  16. Thank you for looking into this problem–the new machines are difficult to use, and are clearly not reliable. And why are we switching from parking meters? At least with them we knew where we stood (or parked)! AND, although when you use them they say that the receipts are optional…it’s clear that we should ALWAYS take the receipt as proof of payment!! AND, as your article points out, SFMTA regularly rejects online protests. They don’t respect our time, and know that most people won’t follow through if they have to go in.

  17. Anyone else find it extremely excessive that the SFMTA charges nearly $100 for an expired meter (that’s not by a yellow or red zone) ?

    1. I think that ticket costs for non moving or safety related issues should be price capped. They should be related to the minimum wage. Why would a laborer have to pay a days wage for a parking or street cleaning infraction? It seems criminal to take rent or food from families that perform truly essential work for SF as a whole. Think of housekeepers, carpenters, painters, landscapers. Many of these people already have long expensive commutes far from their homes, and they need their vehicles to support them with tools and materials. Parking violations should be no more than one hour at minimum wage.

      1. 30 or so years ago a San Francisco business owner in the Mission tried to cut the parking tickets back to $25 by putting it on the ballot. The government spent tons of money publisizing how this would force them to cut city programs. In the end, the citizens voted it down. Want to try again?

  18. The physical conversions away from the old meters are moving quite quickly. If SFMTA thought of themselves as serving the people as opposed to the other way around, they’d implement grace/honeymoon/ramp-up periods for newly converted blocks to work out the kinks and get enforcement ramped up. Instead of course they jerk ppl around. @CityHall: Want to revive downtown? That’s not how to go about it, ppl will take their business elsewhere