Parking enforcement goes high-tech

Portland State students with multiple parking citations will have a more difficult time now, thanks to a recent upgrade in ticket-writing technology. Parking enforcement officers can now check violators against a handheld database of repeat offenders. And don’t call them “meter maids” – the less gender-specific civil servants boot and tow cars if necessary.

Rather than packing ticket books and pencils, parking enforcement officers at PSU now carry electronic devices equipped with wireless mini-printers. With touchscreen-input and the same brain as a handheld organizer, the university is ahead of cities across the nation in ticket-writing efficiency.

Until about five years ago, PSU was still writing out tickets by hand to parking violators in their three garages and limited on-street parking. The university – and the city of Portland – then made the switch to a portable electronic database of repeat offenders, a gray box about the size of a loaf of bread that also includes a printer. That change saved some confusion over bad handwriting and also gave enforcement officers a way to check against a list of students with three or more citations.


Then, about six months ago, PSU upgraded again to a lighter, faster electronic ticket-writing machine. Dan Zalkow, manager of Transportation and Parking Services on-campus, explains that the new machines are basically Palm Pilots, handheld mini-computers that perform similar functions as a desktop but weight little more than the keyboard alone.

“The new machines are much more efficient than handwritten tickets,” Zalkow said. “There’s less human error, and the handheld devices give users all the options that are available so they don’t have to memorize a bunch of codes.”

The portable printers and handheld computers are manufactured by a company located in Indianapolis, Ind. Both employ Bluetooth technology, which powers many computers on the wireless network on-campus as well. The new boxes are an improvement from infrared connections in that the printer doesn’t need to be lined up with the handheld, just near enough that the two machines can “talk.”

Each morning the machines are synchronized against PSU’s database of repeat offenders, or students with three or more violations. Zalkow says they don’t download any sort of permit information, such as names and vehicle identification numbers (VINs), not for lack of ability but because of the sheer amount of information. “In the future we may include that information as well, but for now we can’t look anybody up,” he says.

There is a short list of violations that will earn commuters parking on-campus a ticket (see sidebar). If enforcement officers find a potential violator, they first enter the license plate and vehicle information into the handheld device to check for multiple tickets. With less than three citations, officers simply write out another ticket by selecting the offense, placing the wireless printer near the mini-computer, and printing out a clear, easy-to-read parking violation. The data is stored in the Palm Pilot all day and downloaded each morning to the main PSU computer.

Students with three or more citations will also receive a tow notice violation, Zalkow says, which means they have seven days to pay off that and any remaining balance or risk being “booted” and eventually towed. The tire boots are heavy-duty metal contraptions that are locked around one of the vehicle’s wheels and prevent the offender from driving away. “We boot about three cars a week,” he explains, which is usually enough to prompt people to pay off their balance. “We do whatever we can to avoid towing cars, because of the cost to both us and the students.”

Despite a television episode of “The Simpsons” in which Homer Simpson tries to remove a boot from his car, Zalkow encourages people not to try to remove parking boots unassisted. “The boots cost about $600 each, and if someone gets the lock off and steals the boot or attempts to remove it, they’re charged for the boot as well as the ticket,” he says.

Zalkow says parking enforcement officers write about 100 citations each day, with about 95 percent of those tickets being written for having no permit or parking at an expired meter. “We’re protecting the permit holders,” he insists. “We need to ensure that people with permits have spaces to park.”

The most expensive citations are issued for parking in handicapped spaces without the proper permit and for displaying a forged copy of a PSU-issued permit. Depending on the cost of the permit, forging a permit can also result in felony forgery charges as well, Zalkow says. Knowingly forging materials worth over $750, and especially distributing them, can result in a felony charge and a long talk with the law. Annual parking permits cost around $1000, and Zalkow says they occasionally find forged permits, but as of yet the university hasn’t charged anyone with felony forgery. “We’ve always been able to just work something out with them and get them to stop,” he says.

The handheld technology is becoming very common, according to Zalkow, especially in universities across the nation. “Lots of colleges are further ahead in technology than many cities and municipalities,” he said. At PSU and at other universities, parking enforcement officers are typically students who enjoy the flexibility of the job.

PSU employs 10 student parking officers to patrol all the parking spots around campus, including Jeff, who has worked for Parking and Transportation Services for over three years. When asked why he has remained in a job that has the potential for conflict with customers, he explained that the scheduling flexibility was key. “For a student job you can’t beat it. We just tell them our schedule each term and they work around it. There’s also no route, nothing forced – you can just go around the campus as you want to.”

Customers confronted with a parking enforcement officer ticketing their car can become agitated, but Jeff says he’s never been assaulted. “The worst thing that ever happened to me actually just happened last week,” he explains. “A guy was parked behind the Peter Stott Center unloading equipment, and I told him he had to move and he didn’t like that. He started yelling unprintable things at me and getting right up in my face.” In general, Jeff said people will just yell at him and then go away.

Parking and Transportation Services doesn’t just write tickets. In addition to selling a variety of permits at their office in the lobby of Neuberger Hall, it also distributes subsidized Tri-Met bus passes and tickets at a reduced rate to students. For more information check out its Web site at or call 503-725-4260.