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Have a parking permit problem?

If calls to the PPA and and online forms fail to resolve your parking permit or ticket problem, your next line of inquiry is to your City Councilmember. Find out who represents you on the City Council and reach out to let them know you need help! Be sure to document your predicament and the steps you’ve taken: the permit number and/or any tickets you may have, dates of your previous outreaches to the PPA and the name of who you spoke with, receipts for payments, and anything else showing your attempts to resolve the situation. 


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To this story in CitizenCast

Welcome to a special audio edition of Mystery Shopper

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Mystery Shopper: Parking Permit Hell

Our Mystery Shopper just wanted to pay for their residential parking permit. Why, oh why, was it so hard?

Mystery Shopper: Parking Permit Hell

Our Mystery Shopper just wanted to pay for their residential parking permit. Why, oh why, was it so hard?

Among all the unknowables and frustrations of living in Philadelphia, there are some things this Mystery Shopper has learned to rely on. Among those is the maddening efficiency of the Philadelphia Parking Authority — one minute over time, one foot over the line and, lo, a ticket will appear on my windshield. I will gasp, I will cringe, I will rail at the clouds … and I will pay, thinking all the while: Why is this of all things the part of city government that seems to actually work?

So it was a particularly disorienting experience this month when my residential parking permit expired, and along with it apparently every semblance of PPA efficiency.

Here’s what happened.

The situation:

In the last couple of years, the PPA has replaced permit stickers with an online system that allows workers to look up the permit on their handheld computers. Unfortunately, this also means drivers no longer have an easy way to remember when their permit expires. Thankfully, as it always has, the PPA mails out reminders and gives a one-month grace period.

This year, I never got the reminder. Instead, I start getting tickets. When I call the PPA, a very helpful customer service rep tells me, “A lot of people have been saying they never got the reminder. I don’t know what’s going on at the post office.” Then she fills out my information and tells me I’ll get an email with my account number and a link to getting a new parking permit.

I thank her, and promptly get on a plane for a family vacation.

Steps taken:

    1. A day later (while I am on vacation) I get an email from PPA with a link to pay for my permit. I follow the link on my phone, twice am asked to confirm that I understand a set of rules and regulations, and get to a payment page that shows my two tickets, and the $35 permit fee.
    2. I click on “New Permit” and am alerted that I must pay my two tickets first before I can get a permit.
    3. I try — hand on heart — I try to pay. I click on the payment button, put in my credit card information, and promise I am not a robot. I identify CAPTCHA stairs, then I identify motorcycles. Then I watch as the screen tells me it’s “loading.”
    4. It never loads.
    5. I go back and do the whole thing again. Rinse, wash, repeat — approximately 12 times, on two different devices.
    6. Somewhere in there, I see a note on the website indicating that a failure of the online payment system is not an excuse for not paying tickets. Red flag? Seen.
    7. The last time I try, the page seems to load. It takes me to a blank page and I assume it must have gone through. (You know what they say about assuming, right?)
    8. Vacationing in remote areas with little wifi access continues.
    9. At home, I see no tickets on the car, am satisfied all is well … until the next day, when I get another ticket.
    10. Turns out, I now have $130 worth of unpaid tickets, along with an unpaid parking permit, which I cannot get until I pay the $130 worth of unpaid tickets.
    11. What the actual hell?
    12. I try again to pay online now that I’m back on a computer. Fail.
    13. I call the PPA, get a message that says they are busy and to call back later.
    14. Frustrated, I turn for help to an unrelated entity with a staff person whose job (as it turns out) entails just these kinds of agonies: My City Councilmember, Mark Squilla.
    15. The next morning, Steve Lauer, Squilla’s constituent services rep, calls me, and I send him an email with the above details.
    16. About an hour later, I get a call from PPA deputy manager Lester Emerson who helps me with three things:
      • He’s able to see that I attempted to pay my existing tickets and for my permit before the last set of tickets were issued, so is able to cancel them.
      • He walks me through how I should dispute the earlier tickets.
      • He helps me navigate the permit renewal process, including staying on the phone to make sure it goes through.
    17. Before we are off the call, two of my tickets have been canceled, and I have an email from PPA that my permit is now active. Yippee!

Time Spent: Three hours in total.

Cost: At least $50 in unpaid tickets, though still TBD on the disputed ones.

Result: A parking permit … finally.

Takeaways: The people who work for the city are very nice, and very helpful. But this system is terrible. Why in the year of 2023 does an online payment system not work? Why is it so hard to create a user experience that is simple, quick and effective? Why is it the job of City Council offices to ensure residents are able to pay for a service the City provides? Thumbs down on all of that.

Lightning Bolt Rating:   (half a bolt for patient and nice City workers)


Photo header: Stephen St.Vincent

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