D.C. Rolls Out Pay-To-Park By Phone
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
We're going to turn away from the fun and games now to the harsh reality of parking in a big city. If you're one of those drivers who always has a quarter in your pocket except when you have to park at a meter, take heart. This spring, Washington, D.C., rolled out a pilot program that allows drivers to use their cell phones instead of having to fish for change.
As Jacob Fenston reports, this technology may mean the parking meter's time is about to expire.
JACOB FENSTON: Out of everything you could complain about to Washington, D.C.'s Department of Transportation, parking meters are the number one complaint.
Unidentified Man #1: They are often broken. Everybody knows that.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, I'd say I'm down here about three times a week. And I'd say one day out of the week, we park someplace where the meter isn't functioning.
Unidentified Woman #1: Yeah, I have problems with coin-operated. I have problems with the swipe-my-card thing.
Unidentified Man #3: Weekly.
Unidentified Man #4: You put a quarter in, and it doesn't do anything.
Unidentified Man #5: Not having a quarter, not finding a bank to get some money and everything.
FENSTON: Last year, D.C.'s transportation department got over 140,000 complaints about parking meters.
Mr. GABE KLEIN (Director, District Department of Transportation): Yeah, I was probably one of the biggest complainers before I had this job.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FENSTON: That's Gabe Klein, and the job is director of the District Department of Transportation. We're standing on the sidewalk, looking at an old-school, coin-operated parking meter. The district spends about $1.4 million each year repairing these aging meters.
Mr. KLEIN: These mechanical devices can be stuck. You can people put paperclips in them.
FENSTON: But on the side of this coin-operated meter, there's a new, bright-green sticker. It says, pay by phone - and this, says Klein, holds the solution to the city's parking woes.
Mr. KLEIN: All right. Let me put this Blackberry on speaker.
Unidentified Woman #2: Welcome (unintelligible) pay by phone parking.
(Soundbite of punching keys)
Mr. KLEIN: So I'm putting in my pin number.
Unidentified Woman #2: Invalid response.
Mr. KLEIN: Oh.
Unidentified Woman #2: Please try again.
Mr. KLEIN: That's because I hit the pound button. Here, let's do this over.
Unidentified Woman #2: Please enter your PIN number.
FENSTON: Here's how it works: You call in; you tell the system the parking space number and how much time you want. Then, it charges your credit card.
Mr. KLEIN: So then it just processes your payment and tells you that you're good to go.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you for using (unintelligible). Goodbye.
FENSTON: D.C. isn't the first city to try this out. In fact, according to AAA, 54 towns and cities in the U.S. are already using some kind of pay-by-phone parking. And in Europe, it's quickly becoming the norm. Last year, the London borough of Westminster got rid of its last coin-operated parking meters.
Mr. KIERAN FITSALL (Parking Manager, Westminster): We sold some to enthusiasts, put some on eBay. We donated some to museums.
FENSTON: Kieran Fitsall is Westminster's parking manager. He says when pay-by-phone went borough wide, there were instant savings.
Mr. FITSALL: Well, I mean, the instant savings were from theft.
FENSTON: Thieves had been stealing over $200,000 from Westminster parking meters each week. But now, there's nothing to steal. About 90 percent of parking is paid for by phone; the rest at credit card machines. Here in Washington, D.C., Klein envisions a similar future.
Mr. KLEIN: Our dream is eventually, to get rid of the meters completely.
FENSTON: But don't look for them on eBay anytime soon. For now, coins and credit cards are here to stay, even after pay-by-phone is extended to the entire city in October.
For NPR News, I'm Jacob Fenston.
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