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High-tech parking meters help cities keep the change

Officer Tony Marino demonstrates a handheld computer used to write parking tickets in Pacific Grove, Calif. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Officer Tony Marino demonstrates a handheld computer used to write parking tickets in Pacific Grove, Calif. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Garance Burke Associated Press

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. – In this seaside town, parking meters don’t grant those magical few minutes on someone else’s dime. Each time a car pulls away from a space, the meter automatically resets to zero.

Little is left to chance in the brave new world of parking technology: Meters are triggered by remote sensors, customers pay for street time by cell phone and solar-powered vending machines create customized parking plans for the motorist.

Oh, and forget about rubbing the traffic officer’s chalk mark off your tires on the streets of cities where short-term parking is free but overstays are punished by fines.

If you’re in Monterey, Calif., or Chicago, you’re apt to be foiled by parking officials who drive minicarts outfitted with GPS-enabled cameras that scan your license plate and know how long a car has occupied the given space.

Coin-operated single-spaced meters were banished years ago from such major metropolises as New York and Toronto. But smaller cities including Aspen, Colo., and Savannah, Ga., have now ditched them, too.

Advanced parking technologies can lower a city’s operating costs, reduce staffing needs and increase ticketing accuracy, resulting in fewer challenges in traffic court. Bill Francis, a vice president at the Los Angeles-based Walker Parking Consultants, says technology can also help local officials more smoothly collect on outstanding tickets, which for several cities he’s familiar with added up to $4 million in just five years.

Pacific Grove, a coastal resort town where visitors to the nearby Monterey Bay Aquarium and Pebble Beach golf course compete with locals for the few oceanside spaces, went for the gold when it went digital last year.

It installed meters that increase parking fees over time, so that quick errands remain relatively inexpensive but long stays become more costly.

A wire grid under the pavement triggers a sensor whenever a car pulls in. The information can be sent wirelessly via radio signals to traffic enforcers so they’d know when time runs out on any parking spot in town. The meter resets itself as soon as the car pulls away, so the next car has to pay the full fee.

“Today’s meters are little computers,” said Ross Hubbard, a former Pacific Grove city councilman who advocated for the switch. The city now leases 100 meters for $45,000 per year from Duncan Parking Technologies Inc.

And after examining the data, the council realized it could bring in still more revenue by shifting the enforcement schedule to include Saturday afternoons, “when the likelihood of nabbing people is statistically much higher,” Hubbard said.

The official enthusiasm isn’t shared by all drivers in Pacific Grove.

Sue Shenkman said she wasn’t happy about shelling out $4 to keep her spot for the fifth hour, after spending $1 for each of the first two hours and $2 for each of the next two.

But she really wanted her son to see the aquarium.

“At home, we’re always trying to get someone else’s meter that has a little time on it,” said Shenkman, who was visiting from Boston.

For Officer Tony Marino, it’s a question of changing attitudes, showing people the benefits of a system that can no longer be gamed.

“I just wish people would go with the flow,” said Marino, whose three-wheeled cart is the center of the town’s enforcement operation. “I mean, a parking meter is like a restaurant table: We have to turn these things over.”

In Sacramento, officials solved the turnover problem by booting cars that repeatedly overstay their street time. There, officers drive around in minicarts made by Autovu Technologies Inc. that take infrared pictures of license plates.

That program and other efforts to collect on unpaid tickets have increased revenues by more than $300,000 in the past year, said Howard Chan, who runs the city’s parking division.

Not all the meter technology is aimed at better enforcement.

Convenience is the mantra in Coral Gables, Fla., where residents have quickly learned to feed meters by cell phone, using a system made by Canada’s Mint Technology Corp. After registering online, giving credit card information and getting a user ID, subscribers can dial an 800 number and punch in the code assigned to their meter. Their cost for each “parking session” plus a $7 monthly fee is billed directly online.

Sacramento is also piloting three solar-powered multi-space meters that can be configured to accept coins, credit cards, bills and stored-value smart cards, allowing motorists to pay for the time they wish to stay without being restricted to the change in their pockets.

But local governments considering upgrades still need to do their research.

Chris Quick, the lead parking officer in Palo Alto, said the city decided against buying carts similar to Sacramento’s four years ago because at the time, the infrared cameras appeared to have wandering eyes.

“On rainy days especially, for whatever warped reason, the device seemed to like to take pictures of trees,” Quick said.

Instead, the city bought handheld devices that can tell whether a car has been in the same spot for too long. Officers manually enter license plate numbers and return an hour or two later to re-enter the plates. When the machine gets a match, the officer can issue a parking ticket.

Louise Gilman figures she spends $600 per year on parking tickets because she doesn’t like to move her car from a shady two-hour spot near her office in downtown Palo Alto.

Gilman is still trying to figure out how they catch her, because she goes out every few hours to check whether the police have chalked her tires, an indicator of whether she’s exceeded her parking time limit. She hasn’t heard about the handheld gadgets.

“You’re sitting there saying ‘I know I just went out there and looked for chalk. How could I have been ticketed?’ ” Gilman said. “They’re very sneaky.”

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