Portlandís Purr-fect Plan
Parking Kitty app climbs its way to a national platform
With nearly 60,000 new residents moving to the state last year, it’s no surprise that Oregon is one of the fastest growing states in the country. Many of those new residents are settling in Portland, the state’s biggest city, attracted by the city’s strong economy and high-quality of life.
As welcome as the growth is, it has created challenges for Portland’s transportation system, including more congestion and increased demand for parking. The city’s transportation agency, the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) has drawn on Portland’s legacy as a transportation innovator to meet these challenges.
“Our newest residents are biking more and we have seen the rate of driving in single-occupancy vehicles increase, too,” said Leah Treat, Director of PBOT. “The economy is booming and gas is very cheap … there are a lot of things in the market causing people to drive more. And as more people move to Portland, some into apartment buildings, quite a few of them own cars, which get stored on the streets. We’re working to manage the increased demands of congestion and parking.”
Cars often circle looking for space downtown and homeowners in historic neighborhoods decry the presence of strangers’ cars parked in front of their homes. So how did the city government respond?
About five years ago, PBOT began researching mobile payment application options as a way to help reduce congestion and meet the community’s increasing demand for parking. It needed a solution that was well-thought out and planned with Portland residents in mind, so PBOT put out a request for proposal for a mobile payment app.
Passport was selected to partner with the city to develop a customized app that fits the unique needs of the region.
“PBOT came to the table inspired and full of great ideas, ready to take their city’s parking to the next level,” said Bob Youakim, Passport CEO. “Our team thrives on that type of excitement and we met the challenge to introduce an app that would give users a seamless parking experience but feel tailored to Portland.”
With a lot of brainstorming, soon a feline-themed app was born — Parking Kitty. The cat-faced icon was sparked by a conversation about a PBOT manager’s cat named ‘Coconut’. Never did PBOT expect that that one conversation would create the brand success the city has seen in Parking Kitty.
“We knew we didn’t want to just call it Portland Parking or similar,” Treat said. “We were open to taking calculated risks and we knew we needed something slightly more fun to encourage use. We wanted to do something memorable, so Parking Kitty was born. It’s a pun about feeding a kitty, or pot of money, and also pays ode to Portland’s cat culture.”
The app allows users to pay for parking on the go with a debit/credit card and monitor parking sessions and it even meows to notify users when their parking sessions are near expiration and purrs when parking is paid.
Portlanders are very passionate about cats. The Seattle Times reported in 2015 that the Portland area had the most “cat ladies” of any urban area in the nation. A local entrepreneur even opened a cat café, where people can lounge with shelter cats.
PBOT hired an agency to develop the logo and branding to give its Passport-designed app a unique look and feel. The design is a sleek hot pink cat face with a Wi-Fi symbol above the ears.
The Passport app allows users to pay for parking on the go with a debit/credit card and monitor parking sessions and it even meows to notify users when their parking sessions are near expiration.
“We wanted an app that made paying for parking easier and frictionless. Our goal was to make it easier for people to stay out and enjoy the city,” said Malisa McCreedy, PBOT Parking Operations Division Manager. “If you’re out at dinner longer than you expected you can just feed the meter through the app without running back to a meter.”
The Parking Kitty app is popular among Portlanders for this added convenience. Within the first year, Parking Kitty has more than a 20 percent utilization rate and use continues to grow consistently. “We were only hoping for a 3 percent utilization rate after the first year so it is great to see how well it is doing,” Treat said.
Many cities have functional parking apps, but Parking Kitty’s name and branding have helped to bring awareness to the app and the city.
PBOT worked hand-in-hand with Passport’s marketing team to deploy an ongoing integrated marketing campaign that propelled the app’s awareness very quickly. At launch, street teams of brand ambassadors wearing branded T-shirts and passing out flyers were used to promote the app. Public relations efforts garnered media attention about the app, granting Parking Kitty international exposure. Additionally, radio campaigns and signage throughout the city have ensured that drivers know there is a convenient way to pay for parking.
However, the pièce de résistance was with Portland rapper, MoShow. The self-proclaimed “cat-rapper” is a social media celebrity. PBOT hired him to make the “iAmMoShow - Parking Kitty” music video to promote the app and it has nearly 20,000 views on YouTube for the 1.5-minute video.
“The whole Parking Kitty cat theme felt like it was my calling,” said MoShow. “I had gone into the studio and started creating. … I think people enjoy the video because it’s fun, happy and gives positive feelings. We all need more of that right ‘meow’.”
This summer, PBOT plans to hold concerts at five bicycle-friendly community gatherings at “Sunday Parkways” and will continue marketing the app. MoShow will be performing at one of the concerts and handing out Parking Kitty swag to continue promoting the app.
As of now, 1 out of 5 transactions for PBOT is with the Parking Kitty app, which powers nearly 40,000 parking sessions per day. The community has embraced Parking Kitty. The app has been publicized in publications such as USA Today, TechCrunch and Fortune, and has also been adopted by Portland State University and Washington Park, a major regional destination home to the region’s zoo and children’s museum.
“We have very positive feedback once people use the app,” said McCreedy. “One business owner said she will pay for her customers’ parking and another mentioned when his employees work on a roofing job they can extend their time from their phones without having to stop their work and feed a meter. We hear a lot of different stories and people have been incredibly supportive of this technology.
What is the best advice that the PBOT can give other cities seeking to have similar success with their parking apps?
“Make it fun and unique. You have to be authentic to your own city,” said Treat.
PT editor John Van Horn joined the staff of the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Passport in penning this article.