City tests parking meter that accepts credit cards

Downtown: The high-tech sidewalk sentinel is happy to take your coins or your plastic.

May 20, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

You need grit to get by in Baltimore, a city with lots of big urban ills and pesky daily aggravations. What you don't need anymore, at least in some parts of town, are quarters.

The cashless society has come to a parking space near you.

To spare coinless drivers untold frustration, Baltimore is yanking out dozens of old parking meters and replacing them with a high-tech version that takes credit cards.

No more digging for stray quarters between the bucket seats. No more risking tickets. And never having to beg for change at the nearest coffee shop? Priceless - for parkers, at least.

The 55 to 65 high-tech meters - each of which covers multiple spaces - are being tried out for free. Buying them would cost the city at least $385,000. Replacing all of the city's meters with this new model could cost as much as $9 million over several years.

Chump change, say people in love with the new meters and the time-stamped tickets they spit out.

"I am too tickled about it," said Henri Banks, an Owings Mills resident who was delighted to avoid "the whole quarter thing" when she parked on Charles Street for a business meeting one morning this week. "I scrounged around for three quarters and saw the credit card thing, and now I'm sold."

That kind of convenience can help take the edge off city living, even in the shadow of bigger problems such as violent crime and high property taxes, said Larry M. Gant, an associate professor with the University of Michigan's Center for Urban Innovation.

"Usually, what drives people crazy and really increases stress is not major things but little things," he said. "You know, the straw that breaks the camel's back. [The new meter] is small, but it will be really helpful. It's another nice thing that people will remember about a city."

Baltimore has 10,500 parking meters, thousands of them simple, mechanical ones that aren't much more sophisticated than the nation's first, installed in downtown Oklahoma City in 1935. Many of them need to be replaced, said Jeff Sparrow, executive director of the city's Parking Authority.

Those popping up downtown and in Fells Point run on solar power, beam real-time parking data to City Hall and allow parkers, at least in theory, to take unexpired time to a new parking spot.

"Pretty fashion-forward for Baltimore," said Tyler Gearhart, executive director of Preservation Maryland, who, despite his usual preference for conservation, won't be sorry to see some of the old meters go. The new multiple-space ones create less "visual clutter" than the traditional single-space style.

Despite what looks like gee-whiz technology, the meters have been around in Europe since the first Bush administration. The idea has only recently caught on in North America - in Toronto; New York; Portland, Ore.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., among other places, said George Levey, president of Cale Parking Systems USA, the Clearwater, Fla.-based division of the Swedish meter company.

About 5 1/2 feet tall and 1 1/2 feet wide, the black meters look like skinny automated teller machines with a few buttons and small screens. On the side is an orange-and-black EZ Park logo with a smiling cartoon car.

After payment is made with quarters, dimes, nickels or plastic, the machine spits out a ticket that a driver displays on the dashboard. Meter readers check the hour of expiration printed on the ticket. The meter does not accept dollar bills.

That sounds simple enough. But some people have been struggling to get the hang of it.

Alvin Winters, a retired New York City firefighter who lives in Madison Park, said he and his wife thought the new meter was just a sign directing them to a parking garage. Sparrow promised more signs are coming to tell people what the meters are.

Banks, the Owings Mills resident who parked on Charles Street this week, pulled up next to a new meter, looked around for a traditional one and, seeing none, thought she had hit the parking jackpot.

Minutes later - at the start of her business meeting, when she gushed about the seemingly meter-free parking outside - Banks learned what that big black box looming over her silver Saturn was all about.

She dashed outside, read the directions on the meter, swiped her credit card and pronounced the system a great success.

There was one minor glitch. She displayed her ticket not on the dash, but under her windshield wiper, where someone could have made off with it.

If the ticket has not expired by the time a driver is ready to leave, the remaining time can be used to park elsewhere. But that option isn't worth much yet because the meters are in only one area of town.

Thirty-five of the meters have been installed in the past two weeks on and around Charles Street, from Pratt to Centre streets. Twenty to 30 more will be installed in the next month on Thames Street and Broadway in Fells Point.

Each of the new meters serves six to eight parking spaces, which accounts for their price tag of $7,000 apiece. Traditional single-space models go for about $700.

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