Parking in Montreal: smart cities in practice

I rarely drive in Montreal: but the other day I needed to pick up an item at the office, and drove downtown. I parked in a metered space, and thought I’d get the parking app.

How convenient!

I assumed that this app would do three things:

  • record the ID number of the parking space (which I can enter manually)
  • record my request (how long do I wish to park?)
  • record my payment details.

So I was taken aback – revealing my innocence, despite reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Public Affairs, 2019), being well aware of Ed Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, reviewing an extensive literature on smart cities, and following the stand-off between Facebook and the Canadian government – that this screen appeared:

What the app actually does
  • Why does the company behind this app, or the City of Montreal for that matter, need to know which apps I am running, scrutinize my browser history, and gain broad access to all storage?
  • Why does it require my location? Isn’t the number of the parking place enough?
  • Why does it need access to my camera?
  • I can just about understand why device ID is useful, by why require call information? Am I handing over all my metadata? How far back?
  • Why can’t I choose which information (above the basics I outlined above) I divulge?

There may be legitimate reasons for gathering some specific data, but these requests are overly broad and open ended. Maybe these data about myself are well protected, but it is virtually impossible to find out, at least not with a quick search: this is meant to be a convenient app, not a PhD! The app won’t download unless the user accepts this wide-ranging surveillance: understandably, many of us accept – after all, we just want to park, and are inured to such requests after more than a decade of smartphones and other forms of digital intrusion.

Of course, no one is obliged to download the app! It is indeed possible, as I did, to find a payment booth. They are spaced at about 300m intervals (usually in the opposite direction from where one is headed!) and accept credit cards and coins … if the booth works: if the booth is faulty, it’s up to you to find another one.

So yes, using the app is a choice. But the alternative (i.e. not using the app) has been made so unattractive that the choice is almost illusory. I weigh my words: the alternative has been made unattractive. After all, old-school parking meters were quite convenient :

  • no trudging around to find booths;
  • it was possible to use other drivers’ unused time;
  • if the meter didn’t work, the onus was on the city, not you;

They also had their inconveniences:

  • top-ups required one to interrupt one’s activities;
  • one needed to have the correct coins.

Parking apps seem convenient because the old tech has been trashed. Of course, they add convenience, but also have taken some away. Furthermore, they extract a high price in terms of detailed information about your whereabouts (as well as untold other information from your phone) for this dubious substitution. So the actual cost of parking has risen (at least for those who value privacy).

Unfortunately, this is just a minor example of the far wider issue of smart cities and urban tech. ‘Urban technology‘ is problematic: its advantages are often assumed by planners and local governments rather than demonstrated. It is introduced without debate and without meaningful discussion of its downsides (its advantages are either assumed or extoled). Citizens, resigned to deep privacy intrusion (à la Facebook, Alexa, Google, NSA…), don’t question it.

There is increasing, albeit sporadic, push-back, as exemplfied by Google’s experience in Toronto, where it’s subsidiary, Sidewalk Labs tried to develop – with the city’s blessing – a prototype urban neighbourhood that would have included total surveillance (whether or not you clicked ‘OK’).

But continuous smaller intrusions of the type I describe are more insidious. They fly under the radar, are seen as a-political, and don’t invite protest; so I’m doing my little bit.

Mind you, intrusive parking-apps are a good way to encourage cycling, maybe even in very cold weather!

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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