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High-Tech Systems Feed Change in Parking Meters

You can pay by credit or ATM card. If time is about to expire, you can call in for extra minutes.

September 20, 2005|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Time is running out on traditional parking meters lining curbs around Southern California. And many motorists couldn't be happier.

Those pesky coin-gobblers that have tormented motorists since the first one popped up on an Oklahoma street 70 years ago are getting a makeover.

Soon, drivers with no change in their pocket may be able to pay to park by credit or ATM card. Those whose meter is about to expire may be able to get a text message on their cellphone warning that they face a ticket if they don't move their car or feed the meter. That same cellphone can be used to electronically deposit more money in the meter without the motorist having to return to the street.

In a trial run in West Hollywood, the fanciest of the new meters have been installed in front of hip restaurants and boutiques along a stretch of the Sunset Strip.

The test is scheduled to last six months. But halfway through, city transportation planners were already so encouraged by the solar-powered computerized devices that they were considering asking the City Council this fall to begin permanently installing them around town.

In Pasadena, transportation managers have completed their own pilot program, in which motorists evaluated four types of high-tech parking meters. Officials are now determining which system to begin using citywide.

Los Angeles officials are planning their own evaluation of the meters in January. It will be a large-scale test, with about 200 multi-space "pay stations" from various vendors.

Many motorists are embracing the new machines with credit cards in outstretched hands. Others, however, aren't -- saying that they're too confusing.

"I like them. They're very easy to use, and it's nice to be able to use a credit card," said Axana Leonova of Valencia as she parked in the 8600 block of Sunset Boulevard to shop in West Hollywood's Sunset Plaza area.

Leonova pressed the pay station's keypad and expertly followed the card-swipe instructions on the small liquid crystal display screen. A printed receipt emerged a few seconds later.

The receipt told Leonova which spot her car was parked in, how much she had paid and the exact time when the meter would expire. It also had information about adding time and a phone number to call to pay for parking.

"I've seen these in Europe. I'm surprised it's taken so long for them to get here," said the Russian-born Leonova.

Leading the Way

Even though the parking meter was invented by American Carl Magee and introduced in Oklahoma City in 1935, other countries have led the way with high-tech meters.

Most of the estimated 5 million meters in use today in the United States are still single-space models mounted on posts next to individual parking spots.

Until battery-operated electronic models became common in the 1990s, most meters had spring-operated arrows that pointed to the time remaining. Motorists wound the timing device when they turned a knob to deposit coins and make the meter's "violation" flag drop.

Congested streets and a shortage of curbside parking prompted European cities such as London and Helsinki to adopt more sophisticated meters, beginning about a decade ago.

Most parking kiosks offer instructions in multiple languages and accept prepaid passes as well as credit cards and cash. Some promote vehicle turnover by sensing when cars have been parked longer than allowed. In 2001, cellphone payment was introduced in Finnish meters.

"It's a technology that's been over there many, many years. We've been kind of slow to pick it up," said Amir Sedadi, Pasadena's parking manager.

As part of his own evaluation of high-tech meters, Sedadi surveyed meter use across the United States. He found that some cities have taken baby steps toward "smart" meters -- and others big strides.

Boston experimented with 13 pay stations two years ago but held back on replacing its 7,000 single-space meters. Portland, Ore., converted 6,800 of its 8,000 parking spaces to pay stations in 2002. There have been problems with smart meters closer to home. In 2000, Newport Beach experimented with meters that used sensors to prevent motorists from continually feeding meters to hog beach-area parking spaces. The system was eventually disconnected because of repeated technical glitches, said city transportation engineer Tony Brine. Beverly Hills temporarily installed parking stations on Beverly Drive but decided to bring back traditional meters because motorists complained that the new machines were hard to use and looked unattractive.

In Pasadena, Sedadi tested four multi-space parking payment systems between October and January.

The trial run in Old Pasadena involved two metering systems: "pay and display" and "pay by space." The first requires motorists to pay at a kiosk and then return to their cars to place a parking receipt on the dashboard. The other electronically records payments on kiosk readouts that are accessible to parking enforcement officers, obviating the need for a receipt.

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