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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane meters will allow drivers to monitor, pay for spots with phones

City Planner David Steele holds up his cellphone to demonstrate how patrons can use electronic devices to feed Spokane’s new smart meters. (Tyler Tjomsland)

One day your car will robotically drive you to your destination and park itself without your help. The chip in your cellphone will beep a command to the automated meter and with a swipe of the phone screen you’ll pay for the time you need. Or you’ll just tell the phone, “give me two hours.”

Spokane drivers can get a first look at parking of the future later this year when the city of Spokane converts dozens of downtown meters so drivers can pay for time with smartphones and other wireless devices.

The first group of advanced parking meters will be turned on by Thanksgiving, said David Steele, head of the city’s parking division.

“We want to have some of the system operating in time for holiday shoppers,” he said.

Once that part of the system is running right, the city will roll out the second phase: activating sensors that will keep track of which parking spots in downtown Spokane are open and which aren’t.

The shift to smarter meters started last year when the city spent about $500,000 to replace 800 mechanical coin-drop meters with newer units that accept credit cards.

This fall, the city will switch on the system that lets drivers pay with phones or other wireless devices.

Eventually, the city will turn on 400 parking meters for wireless payments, Steele said. The rollout will be done in phases, he said, in order to ensure the network can handle the transactions.

Area drivers will start seeing stickers attached to the turned-on meters that explain how they work.

A year from now, the smart meters will use sensors that can identify if a vehicle is parked in front of that meter. When that service is enabled, drivers can save time by finding where parking spots are available using their mobile devices, Steele said.

Cities across the country are making the same switch, partly to improve their regulation of meters but also to give customers more options.

Spokane is one of more than 300 cities in the process of adopting such parking technology, said Brad Magee, a vice president with Duncan Systems, the Wisconsin-based company that’s providing Spokane its new meters.

So far, even without allowing phone-based payments, Spokane’s seeing a boom in parking revenue, Steele said.

The city’s parking meter revenue is $5,700 per week higher now than a year ago, Steele said. The explanation: People paying by cards generally overestimate how much time they need, and accordingly overpay, he surmised.

One wrinkle in the system of paying through a phone app is that meters won’t show how much time has been paid, Steele said.

So meter readers will start at the corner of each block and look at a handheld device that will indicate which meters are paid.

The new option for wireless device payment is an addition, Steele noted. Drivers can still pay by credit and debit cards or by inserting coins into meters.

And downtown parking rates will not increase.

Meters will allow just one parking time cycle – meaning if the meter allows a maximum of two hours or more, the driver isn’t allowed to keep coming back and replugging. The exception is that people making a phone-based payment can get a 15-minute time extension beyond the limit.

The city’s been testing the automated pay option and is still ironing out some details, Steele said.

So far, he’s heard positive interest from Avista Utilities, which might switch from using prepaid parking meter bags when crews need to reserve parking spaces, he said. That would allow the utility company to pay for only as much time as needed instead of locking up the meters for hours at a time.

The next phase, beyond phone payments, will be the use of sensors on the meters to identify vacant parking slots. That technology, which Steele said is a modified radio signal, will scan a parking area and know when a car has parked and when it’s left the space.

Steele already knows the city is going to hear complaints from residents when they learn that the sensors will “flush” any leftover time on the meters, because the next driver won’t get the benefit of leftover time.

He said the system needs to operate in real-time and keep track moment by moment where the open parking spots are.

Steele said the city is still evaluating which type of space-sensor device it wants but expects the devices to cost about $325 per meter.