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Aggressive Parking Meters Hit the Streets

A new computerized parking meter raises revenues, conducts parking surveys and helps free up parking spaces. But if it's so great, why are cities reluctant to unleash it?

Aug 95

Level of Gvt: local

Function: Parking

Problem/Situation: Municipalities confronting budget cuts and parking problems need more effective parking meters.

Solution: Ten municipalities are testing an intelligent parking meter system that could increase revenue and track parking patterns.

Jurisdiction: New York City, New Hope Borough, Pa.

Vendors: Intelligent Devices Inc.

Contact: Vincent Yost 610/584-8830

By Jezra Largman

Special to Government Technology

A woman leaves a downtown shopping mall to plug her parking meter. She reaches her car at the same time as a parking enforcement officer, who was attracted by a red light flashing inside the meter. The women tries to explains that the time just expired, but the meter says different - the time expired 15 minutes ago.

Annoyed, the woman takes the ticket, waits for the officer to leave, and puts additional coins into the expired meter. The meter takes the coins but does not allot more time. She hits the meter a few times, but no luck. Then she notices that the car behind her is preparing to leave and there is still an hour remaining on the meter.

As the other vehicle leaves, she backs into the open space. But when she gets out, the remaining hour has disappeared from the meter. The woman has no choice but to deposit more coins. She has met the intelligent meter - although she might call it something else entirely.


Parking meters serve two important functions: they bring in revenue, and they help free up parking spaces. But standard parking meters have their weaknesses. Motorists park on leftover time, and feed the meter after expiration, clogging parking spaces and cutting revenue.

Over the last few years, cities that want to avoid raising taxes but are in need of additional income have begun to replace mechanical meters with more efficient electronic counterparts. A number of municipalities are testing these new electronic meters, one of which is a "smart" parking meter system created by Intelligent Devices Inc., of Harleysville, Pa.

Noted as one of the most aggressive meters to hit the streets, the smart meter looks like a standard mechanical meter but, rather than a wind-up motor, it contains two lithium-powered computer chips and a microprocessor with an infrared sensor. The new meter has so far been celebrated by city officials and condemned by motorists.

It can count and monitor every car that parks in the space, track coins, display how long a car has been at an expired meter, and can be programmed to allot any set amount of time. And, as the woman discovered, it erases unused time and refuses to allow parking beyond the expiration time.


In addition to raising revenues and helping turn over parking spaces, such meters can also track parking patterns. Rather than have employees survey parking, the new meter does it faster and at a lower cost. The meter records such information as occupancy and vacancy time, as well as revenue generated. When pointed toward the meter, a hand-held remote control device containing compatible software extracts the data collected inside the meter.

"After all the information from the hand-held device is downloaded into a PC," said Vincent Yost, president of Intelligent Devices Inc., "through color graphic software, city officials can determine the average weekly or monthly parking activity for a space, zone and district, as well as how many expired vehicles there were in an area, and the amount of cash every meter collector has gathered. If the meter's survey indicates that expirations are substantially high in particular areas, a city may want to consider lengthening the allocated time limit," he added. "Or they may discover that in a two-hour parking district, the majority of cars are parking for two hours and 15 minutes. A solution would be to allot a three-hour time limit."

Both Yost and some municipalities anticipate initial resistance to the meter. "Motorists may be apprehensive about the `smart' meter at first, but will come to appreciate it because there will be more spaces to park." He also noted, "The meters can be adjusted to fit the various needs of localities. Cities can program the meters to be as hard-nosed or as lenient as they choose. For example, `friendly' meters can have a grace period of 15 minutes."


While cities are mindful of the meter's revenue-producing capabilities, many are hesitant to enforce them for fear of backlash from motorists. New York City recognizes that motorists and retailers may dislike the meter and are not planning to utilize all of the meter's capabilities. Larry Berman, director of the Bureau of Parking, Department of Transportation, said that the city is adjusting their 50 prototypes to be as lenient as their mechanical meters. "We have no plans to use it as a revenue generator and so we won't be programming our meters to be very aggressive," said Berman.

New York City collects $800 from each meter annually. The city will be testing the meters for six months, starting sometime in July or August. While some cities are taking only three months to test the meters, Berman said they need more time to test the meters in all sorts of conditions. "A six-month period is long enough to test degrees of vandalism, the effect of various weather conditions, and - most importantly - citizens' reactions."

Currently, there are 2,000 electronic meters in the city of New York, 6,000 electronic meters will arrive soon, and by July 1995, the plan was to order 10,000 to 20,000 more. Yost predicts that about 15 percent of municipalities will be changing to intelligent meters every year for the next 10 years. "Currently, 90 percent of all meters are mechanical but in the next 10 years, it will be the reverse," he said.


In need of a better parking system, New Hope Borough, Pa., is testing 10 prototypes of the new meters. New Hope is a popular resort community of 1.5 square miles, whose parking can turn into chaos when spaces run short. Chief of Police Robert Brobson said the new meters will reduce traffic and provide more parking spaces. But as in the case of New York City, Brobson noted that he is just as interested in traffic studies the meter can provide as with the revenue.

"These meters will provide us with more advanced information so that we can decrease the strain on our streets and parking," he said. The mechanical meters - and a few electronic meters the city has now - are set at an expiration time of four hours, the same time the prototypes will also be set for. "We want motorists to feel comfortable with the new meters. For example, we're not testing the non-refeeding aspect of the meter," he said. "Our meters will still take coins after expiration."


Yost predicts that his intelligent meters will increase revenue for municipalities by 25 percent. He noted that one way the electronic meter saves money is that it spends less time on the repair shelf. "Fifteen percent of the city's mechanical meters are broken at any given time, compared to one to three percent of electronic meters. Hence, they cost less to maintain," he said.

Yost said his units will be more expensive than standard parking meters, which run $175 to $200, but has not yet set a price. He noted that the satisfaction level of municipalities after the pilot phase will determine the price, and he hopes to have the meters on the market by next year. At that time, cities will have the option of buying or leasing the meters. Yost expects that most meters will be leased, with his company taking a percentage of the anticipated revenue increases.

Jezra Largman is a freelance writer living in Sacramento, Calif.