April 14, 2010 By Russell Nichols
In Washington, D.C., the city parking nightmare has residents clamoring for change. Many objected when the parking rates went up from $1 to $2 an hour last year, and backlash has been building against Mayor Adrian Fenty's recent proposal to increase parking fees even more (to $3 an hour in some areas) to help close budget gaps.
But perhaps no complaints rang louder than those from residents who had to deal with the city's raggedy, old coin-fed parking meters. Washington, D.C., has more than 12,000 single-space meters, most of which have been around for more than a decade. And in fiscal 2009, drivers who were sick of battling broken meters and carrying coins complained to the city an amazing 142,000 times, according to Washington, D.C.'s District Department of Transportation (DDOT). In the past few months, the DDOT has been exploring a number of innovative technological advances in parking management, such as solar-powered meters and in-car metering systems.
"The biggest complaint that we receive from a customer service standpoint is about parking meters," said John Lisle, spokesman for the DDOT. "A lot of that is because our inventory for single-space meters is outdated. We have been in the process of replacing them. We're really trying different methods to improve the parking experience for residents and motorists in the city."
The latest pilot is a pay-by-phone parking program, which launched Monday, April 12. To enroll in the program, drivers must set up a free account at paybyphone.com (or call 888-510-PARK) and provide their mobile phone number, license plate and credit card number. Once signed up, the driver pays to park by calling the toll-free number, entering the location and desired time, and the total will be charged to the credit card.
Drivers can choose to set up text message alerts when time is winding down, or call from any phone to add meter time. DDOT launched this cashless payment option as a three-month pilot at 700 parking spaces, with service provided by Verrus Mobile Technologies.
According to company officials, Verrus has a pay-by-phone presence in 16 U.S. cities and seven universities. With no hardware to install, cities incur minimal costs and risk because the service is based on transactions, said Chris Morisawa, marketing coordinator for Verrus.
Initially it was a challenge to convince municipalities to embrace the technology, Morisawa said, but with so many people carrying cell phones now, cities are starting to recognize the system as a convenient and cost-effective option. Cities can save the money it costs for coin collection and meter maintenance due to vandalism or theft. Pay by phone also boosts revenues, he added, because 20 percent of users extend their parking sessions remotely, with transactions on average $1 more compared to cash payments.
In Miami, city officials rolled out a pay-by-phone system in May 2008, and now the city has more than 40,000 registered users, which accounts for 5 percent of total utilization, according to Art Noriega, chief executive officer of the Miami Parking Authority. The pay-by-phone program, which costs the city nothing, gives customers another option to pay along with the single-space meters and display machines.
"From a convenience factor, there really aren't many excuses left in terms of not being able to pay for parking," Noriega said. "We've given people as much flexibility as we can."
In January, the DDOT piloted solar-powered, single-space meters that accept credit cards as well as coins. Powered by a solar-powered battery system, with a back-up battery pack, the meters have a high-visibility expiration time indicator and a wirelessly networked Web-based management system, which keeps the agency updated via text message or e-mail. One of the goals in the city's two-year Action Agenda, Lisle said, is to increase the number of options to pay for curbside parking from two to four by 2012.
"We envision a system where you still have physical infrastructure in place, but also the option of meterless pay," Lisle said. "That will greatly improve the system we have, make it more reliable and cut down on the number of complaints."