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Dead Steve Jobs owed $174 by San Francisco parking ticket wardens

Did bad web design yield city a $6.1m windfall?

Efficient little machine of Satan: the Interceptor parking fine vehicle

Steve Jobs is owed $174 by San Francisco parking attendants.

It's not just the deceased co-founder of Apple either. PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel is owed $170; Napster co-founder and Facebook's first president Sean Parker $320; Salesforce's Marc Benioff $94.

But top of the pile comes, ironically, CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick, who is owed a significant $510 by the blue-and-white Interceptor crowd.

How did this happen?

According to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), every one of the 200,000 tickets it has listed in a series of alphabetical PDF files either paid too much on their ticket or accidentally paid twice.

The tickets cover an extraordinarily long time period – January 1, 1995 through to June 30, 2012 – which would explain how someone who has been dead for nearly five years appears on the list.

The SMFTA said it has tried at least once to contact the car owners by letter but for whatever reason they have not used its online claim form, or written back to the authority to claim back their money. The result: a windfall of no less than $6.1m.


But just how do people overpay on their parking tickets?

We decided to find out, contacted the SFMTA, and found out ... precisely nothing. "I don't know the specific reasons," a spokesman told us. "Some people can pay twice and some pay too much."

Having lived in San Francisco for a number of years and suffered under the depressingly efficient little machines of Satan called Interceptors – particularly on parking days – we have a much more precise theory: crappy web design.

For years now, you have been able to pay your parking ticket online. It is often more convenient than writing a check, enclosing it in the provided envelope (which often gets sodden in the wetter, foggier months) and sending it through the post.

Except, the SFMTA website looks like it's still stuck in 1995 and hasn't quite mastered the basics of taking payment with a credit card. Some years ago, a big text warning would appear underneath the Pay button telling you only to click it once or you might pay twice.

The system often took so long that you really did start to wonder whether the website had stalled. But wait long enough and eventually it told you the payment had been accepted.

Here's our bet: the vast majority of these 200,000 over-paid tickets are thanks to this crappy design.

Why so long?

Another question begging to be asked: why the 12-year delay in paying people back from 20 years ago?

According to the spokesman, demonstrating the sort of mathematical skills clearly prevalent at the agency: "Last time we did this was in 2004 – ten years ago [um, 12? – ed.] – so we felt it was time to do it again."

However, going forward, the authority plans to repeat the exercise every two to three years, rather than every decade.

More importantly: how do you get your money back? Well, you have to fill in a two-page form giving your name and address, after which you will be contacted by a representative of the SFMTA (within three weeks) and then you can expect a check within 30 days.

It's not hard to imagine this process is a little too time-consuming for people who make more each second than the total amount of their ticket. Especially if they're dead. Which is why we have applied to receive Steve Jobs' $174 refund (comprising four tickets and two cars) – we figure we can use it more than him.

What is also interesting is who doesn't appear on the list. We couldn't find any well-known venture capitalists. Here's the question: is that because...

  1. They never leave Silicon Valley? (All too possible)
  2. They never pay their parking tickets? (Even more possible), or
  3. They would never leave money on the table – even if it's $30? (Almost certainly true)

So here's to rich, lazy San Franciscans and their city's crappy websites. ®

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