Street Parking In Washington D.C. Goes High Tech

Cities are starting to update a critical public service: on-street parking. Washington, D.C. is in the vanguard of this new parking shift. Officials are working with private companies — trying out five different technologies to collect parking revenue.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now from the global market to a very local and competitive market: the fight for parking spaces.

Cities across the United States are updating the way they are managing on-street parking. Washington, D.C. is the front of this effort. Officials are working with private companies, and they are trying out, on D.C. drivers, no fewer than five different technologies to collect parking revenue.

NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin inspected some of the new gizmos.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Most of the meters in Washington are still the classic ones - you know, the ones on grey metal poles, with coin slots and a window that tells you how much time you have left. They haven't changed much since they first came out in the 1930s. Newsreels like this one first introduced Americans to the new-fangled technology.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Announcer: In many cities throughout the country, the newest thing for downtown parking is the five-cent parking machine.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The big difference now, of course, is that that-five cent parking machine now wants a lot more than five cents.

(Soundbite of coins dropping)

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Here in Washington D.C., driver Paul Horton says it's gotten a little ridiculous.

Mr. PAUL HORTON: Who walks around, if you really have some business to take care of, with $5 worth of quarters, you know? No one.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: But change is in store. D.C.'s Transportation Director Gabe Klein is in charge of upgrading the city's parking services.

Mr. GABE KLEIN (Transportation Director, Washington, D.C.): We're sort of at the forefront of a lot of this because we're testing so many different types of systems.

(Soundbite of ringing phone)

Unidentified Woman: Welcome to ParkMobile.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Here's one of them, a pay-by-phone system. You park in front of an old coin meter, but instead of putting in a bunch of coins, you call a phone number, then give your credit card number and the number on the parking spot that's on a sticker on the meter.

Unidentified Woman: Your parking session has now started.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In D.C.'s U Street district, Pat Tompkins encounters another experiment in parking.

Mr. PAT TOMPKINS: Enter your license plate?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: She's clutching a zipper pouch of quarters and squinting at a shiny new kiosk with a whole keyboard of multicolored buttons. She needs to enter her license plate and the amount of time she wants to park. Traffic police can drive past, scan her plates, and know if she's paid or not.

Ms. TOMPKINS: I don't know my license plate. I mean, I have to get my wallet out and look at my registration. That's just a little nuisance.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: It took her a couple of tries, but she sorted it out.

Down by the National Mall, Steve Spitzer watches his friend wrangle with another kind of kiosk: You enter the parking spot number and the amount time you want to stay. You pay by cash or card.

Mr. STEVE SPITZER: I guess this is good. I mean, it's like 2010. You should be able to pay with a credit card.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Credit cards are accepted by all these new parking devices. No need for buckets of coins. Cards are convenient for drivers, and it makes it easier for cities to charge more. But they can't charge too much.

Richard Little directs the Keston Institute for Infrastructure at the University of Southern California.

Mr. RICHARD LITTLE (Director, Keston Institute for Infrastructure, University of Southern California): They will charge a rate that the market will bear. And when parking gets too expensive, people will stop using it, or they'll stop driving.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Little says drivers will complain, but prices will be closer to what scarce city curb space is actually worth. Urban planning experts also say that higher prices can create a cascade of positive effects. People don't stay in spots as long, so more spots are open. Then there's less circling around. And that can means less traffic, fewer accidents, less air pollution, and so on.

Well, D.C.'s transportation director Gabe Klein is still working at the ground level. He's pointing to a baseball-sized black mound embedded in asphalt. It's in the middle of a parking spot. The mound has a sensor that knows if a car's parked there and can transmit that information wirelessly.

Mr. KLEIN: Well, what we want to do is get to a point where you can look at your phone and see how many spaces are available on a block face, and then go grab one of those spaces.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Klein fantasizes about a broader system, where parking is connected to all transport options, from buses to bikes. Then people can look at all of those schedules and costs on their computer or mobile phone screens and make the most efficient choice.

Okay, that's pretty cool. But first, they've got to get the technology right. And it's not going right at this new kiosk. At least four people have been fumbling with the various buttons and the steps. Some drove off, defeated. But Andy Bricky, despite repeatedly inserting his credit card and getting error messages, decided to keep his car parked there, anyway.

Mr. ANDY BRICKY: Well, we'll just see if I get a ticket today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Clearly, there are bumps in the road before 21st century parking realizes its potential.

Selena Simmons-Duffin, NPR News, Washington.

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