In theory, as cities keep rolling out more bike lanes, bike commutes are getting easier. In practice, new bike lanes tend to double as illegal parking spots for delivery vans, idling cars, and cops getting pizza, leaving cyclists to veer into traffic to avoid crashing into obstacles. A new app is designed to let aggravated cyclists–or drivers fed up with any double-parked car blocking the road–to snap a photo and report it to the city to get it towed.
“We had a new mayor come into office with a whole towing initiative that was going to crack down on illegal parkers clogging up our streets,” says Michael McArthur, co-founder of Toronto-based Towit. “The initial idea was to piggyback on that initiative and set up some city service integration, whether through 311 or the police.”
Because of the complexity of coordinating the app with the city, the first version acts mostly as a “driver shaming” app, letting anyone share snapshots of badly parked cars online. It doesn’t automatically connect with traffic cops and tow trucks. But the startup is working on quickly building the technology to automate outdated, cumbersome methods that cities currently use for ticketing.
In Toronto, for example, police currently have to show up in person, ticket a car, and then wait for a tow truck to arrive. The startup is currently scraping local bylaws to teach the app how to automatically recognize, based on location, whether a car is illegally parked. If a car happens to be parked on a particular street during rush hour when no parking is allowed, the app will recognize that without needing anyone on the scene. Eventually, a remote traffic cop may be able to look at a snapshot and basic data, and instantly call for a tow.
“The interesting thing about our system is that it’s going to allow us to create other functionality for drivers to let them know when they can park, or when they’re going to park illegally,” says McArthur. “Or I could push a button in the app that says I’m leaving my car here now, ping me 10 minutes before the tow route is going to take place, so I have a reminder to move my car.”
Laws about ticketing and towing are different in each city, so the startup plans to work with cities to help get the app fully implemented. In Toronto, where they’re focusing their first efforts, the company is lobbying city government to reconsider the current law that requires cops to be present until a tow truck arrives. “It’s going to be a bit of a leap,” McArthur says. “But obviously the more support we have, the easier it’s going to be to propose these solutions.”
Of course, cities that use the app will have to actually be interested in getting illegally-parked cars off streets. In places where double-parking is ubiquitous, police are notoriously blasé about enforcement–and often are some of the worst offenders themselves. Still, there are signs this is starting to change. In New York City, for example, where a 2008 study found that 25% of illegally parked cars in one Manhattan neighborhood belonged to cops, the city is now starting to aggressively ticket drivers parked in bike lanes.
And even before the app is fully connected to city systems, McArthur thinks it has some value.
“We’re not out here to ruin people’s lives or tow people endlessly,” he says. “It’s all a behavioral shift to make our societies function better. Really, we just want people to think about how their actions are impacting others.”