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New App Latest Move in Sacramento, Calif.’s Parking Overhaul

Parkmobile will enable Sacramentans and visitors to California’s state capitol to pay for parking more efficiently using their smartphones.

It’s Monday morning and you’re late for a meeting, having spent 15 minutes driving around looking for on-street parking. Satisfaction hits as an open spot appears and you take it. But the euphoric feeling quickly turns to dread after realizing you have no coins to pay the meter.

Sound familiar? Many urban commuters or tourists in cities can probably tell a similar horror story. The problem in some areas has been alleviated by smart parking meters that take credit cards, but Sacramento, Calif., is going one step further by introducing payment by smartphone.

The Sacramento Department of Public Works has partnered with Parkmobile, a new service that gives people the option to pay for parking using a mobile device. The technology is currently operating at single-space smart meters in Old Sacramento, one of the city’s historical tourist areas, with plans to expand Parkmobile to meters around city hall and Cesar Chavez Park over the next month. Parkmobile also operates in regions throughout the U.S.

Mobile payment is the next step in a comprehensive overhaul of Sacramento’s public parking, as the city is working with the IPS Group to install 4,000 smart meters throughout its downtown and midtown areas.

While the meters will also be able to accept credit cards and coins, Parkmobile enables users to receive text alerts when the meter is about to expire and extend time from a remote location. With new businesses popping up and a new downtown arena under construction, city officials hope the move will make parking more efficient for both residents and visitors.

Matt Winkler, operations general supervisor for the Sacramento Department of Public Works’ Parking Division, told Government Technology that the city has been testing the Parkmobile app for a few months. Chief among the initial challenges was making sure it didn’t take long for a person’s smartphone to communicate with Parkmobile, and for the vendor to send the data into the meter to flash green, showing parking as being paid.

“We don’t want poor customer service, so it was important to us to make sure [the meter] turned green,” Winkler said. “In some areas it was up to 30 seconds, but other places it was 10-12 seconds. So it’s pretty fast.”

How the App Works

To use Parkmobile, a person creates an account through the app or on Parkmobile’s website using his or her cellphone number, email address, license plate and credit card number. Once registered, a user starts a parking session by manually entering the zone and location information from the meter of the parking spot into the app.

Parking is paid for through the app, and a confirmation is sent to the user through the app by text message or email.

Parkmobile users are charged a 35-cent convenience fee for each transaction. The fee is added to the total parking cost. If someone doesn’t want to use the app, he or she can still create an account on Parkmobile’s website and call a local number to claim the parking spot.

Looking Ahead

The Parkmobile application also allows the city to remove time zones and allow for a progressive payment system, such as dynamic pricing models, according to Winkler. The city is looking at testing that option in the future and is going to seek permission from the Sacramento City Council to do it.

The challenge, Winkler added, is that while not having time zones would be beneficial for people, local businesses and the city have a vested interest in making sure spots are open regularly.

Although credit card and in-app payments are convenient for people, Sacramento won’t phase out coin transactions. While continuing coins isn’t cost-effective for the city – having a person manually collect the coins, counting them and auditing – city leaders are adamant that parking also has to be open to people who would rather not use more high-tech methods of payment.

Parkmobile also offers flexibility for Sacramento. If the smart meter is hacked or Parkmobile is compromised in some fashion, the city can shut off service remotely. And while Winkler said he’s fond of the user-friendly interface of Parkmobile, if the city decides to go with another parking solution in the future, it can do so easily.

“IPS is open to doing different things if we have to,” Winkler said. “This was probably the most user-friendly app [we saw] and the one we felt the city would most benefit from with this particular meter type. That’s not to say that in three or four years there won’t be another great system out there.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.
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