Toronto-based app lets public help catch parking violators in the act

TORONTO – “You’re using homophobic slurs while you’re committing a municipal bylaw infraction,” a man explains to a woman he is videotaping on Wellesley Street West.

She replies in a mocking tone and goes on to toss multiple expletives at him before walking back toward her vehicle.

The video posted on Facebook, and later on YouTube shows an interaction between a user of the phone app TowIt and a driver he has allegedly captured standing in a bike lane.

The Toronto based, crowd-sourced app has gathered about 1,000 users worldwide since its launch on the Android OS in January; adding an iOS version last month.

Users are encouraged to take photos of cars violating traffic rules, with license plate in frame, and post them online through the app, which places the report and accompanying information on a map.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Toronto Parking Enforcement officers ticket Wheel-Trans vehicles

It’s easy to see how tempers can flare, but its co-creator Michael McArthur encourages users “please, just don’t get into confrontations. Walk away if you can.”

The goal of the app, in essence, is to deter people who break traffic rules by publicly calling them out.

“Handicapped parking without any kind of authorized card in the windscreen,” McArthur lists among the infractions regularly reported to them. “We see a lot of people parking in front of fire hydrants. We see a lot of people parking very close to the corners of intersections which of course impedes traffic flow.”

Despite members registered around the world, McArthur estimates about 75 per cent of reports are filed in downtown Toronto.

He lists Simcoe Street south of Queen Street and various stretches of Duncan Street and Danforth Avenue as frequently cited areas.

The project was meant to complement Mayor John Tory’s zero-tolerance, tag and tow policy on illegal parking during rush hour. McArthur said the co-creators “piggybacked on that.”

“The blitz will continue,” said Tory about the rush hour towing practice.

“Other activities will continue including the acceleration of construction and the coordination of events in the city so that we can make traffic move better.”

Story continues below advertisement

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s department of geography, is happy to see the Mayor is committed to a multi-pronged approach to congestion relief.

Beyond towing illegally parked cars and paying for faster construction, he said “getting transit moving faster is really the key.”

“We have to be able to switch people from single occupant vehicles, that’s the least efficient way to move people, on to more mass transit,” Siemiatycki said.

While Siemiatycki understands what an app like TowIt aims to do, he expresses some reservations about how it is done.

“I’m a little nervous about advocating for these types of programs because I think they’re quite adversarial.”

The app’s developers realize its potential to anger drivers caught on camera and say they urge users to stay away from shouting matches or worse. But McArthur also cites it as a “necessary friction.”

“I believe it’s necessary to create the social change required that we’re going after here.”

McArthur says TowIt will have additional uses and data types implemented in the coming weeks.

Its creators are hoping they can work together with the city, offering to share the acquired data for free. They say they’ve held brief talks with Toronto Police’s traffic services division, but haven’t received much of a response from the Mayor’s office.

Story continues below advertisement

“We’re here to lend a helping hand,” said McArthur.