Parking 'smart card' gets overhaul Some arrived to purchasers mail-damaged. Others could not be inserted. The city says it is addressing the problems.

Posted: July 23, 2004

The Philadelphia Parking Authority's "smart card" program, introduced in October as a coin-free method for motorists to buy time on parking meters, has suffered two major glitches leading to lower-than-expected card sales.

But Richard D. Dickson Jr., director of on-street parking for the authority, said the problems are being fixed, and a new marketing program to encourage use of smart cards is to begin next month.

"We believe that once we get these glitches worked out, 40 to 50 percent of our meter revenue will come from smart cards," Dickson said.

Currently, smart cards account for only 1.5 percent of the city's meter revenue, or $192,000 of $12.3 million over the last nine months.

About 9,500 of the $20 cards have been sold since October. More than 22,000 free cards, worth $5 each, also were distributed to promote the program.

Dickson said sales have been low because the Parking Authority curtailed marketing efforts when users complained of problems.

The first problem arose shortly after the program began when more than 700 cards mailed to customers were damaged by Postal Service stamping machines. Those cards failed to work when inserted in meter heads.

Dickson said that problem has been solved. Smart cards now mailed to customers are presorted and coded internally at the Parking Authority, eliminating the need for machine processing by the Postal Service.

A second problem developed when customers were unable to insert smart cards at some meters. A defect in the face plates on about 1,000 of the city's 14,500 meters prevented insertion of the cards. The diagonal card slot was too narrow to accept the cards.

Dickson said an Arkansas contractor, Duncan Parking Technologies, which two years ago sold the Parking Authority new electronic meter heads, has agreed to supply new face plates for all meters. He said that would correct the problem of the tight slots.

Despite the problems, Parking Authority officials are convinced that the public eventually will love smart cards.

Philadelphia is the first big city in America to implement a citywide smart card program for parking.

In Miami Beach, where similar cards were introduced in 2000, Saul Frances, director of the city Parking Department, said people do love them.

"People have really taken to the program," said Frances. "It's been growing for four years now."

Even so, Frances said smart cards account for only about 9 percent of Miami Beach's parking meter revenue.

Dickson said the Philadelphia Parking Authority sponsored focus groups this spring to hear from people who had tried smart cards here. Reports from those sessions concluded that people liked the convenience of the cards.

"It's like E-ZPass," said Sara Cucinotta, a graphic designer who participated in one focus group. "Every time I use it in Center City, people come up and say, 'What are you doing? Is that a credit card?' "

Cucinotta said the Parking Authority should advertise smart cards more widely, sell them in bigger denominations, and offer them in retail locations as well as online.

She said she ordered a smart card online (at www.philapark.org) last year as soon as the cards went on sale and promptly discovered that it didn't work. The Parking Authority issued her a new one. The second card worked better, but Cucinotta said she still had trouble inserting the card at many meters.

Even when both card and meter are working, some users have had trouble figuring out which end of the card goes into the slot and which side goes up.

But Dickson said most people who have had problems with smart cards have not given up.

"Less than a dozen wanted their money back," he said. "Everybody else wanted a card that worked."

Contact staff writer L. Stuart Ditzen at 215-854-2431 or sditzen@phillynews.com.

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