New parking meters on Head House Square confuse many

Posted: June 27, 2007

Parking in Head House Square just got more efficient - and for some, more confusing.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority two weeks ago installed six new $13,000 solar-powered multi-space parking meters that accept bills, credit cards and coins. It's a first for Philadelphia, with the new devices replacing 44 single-space meters at South and 2nd Streets.

Drivers can walk to any machine in the square, swipe a credit card or insert cash, and receive printed time-stamped receipts that are displayed on their windshields.

Philadelphia is experimenting with the new meters to increase sidewalk space, parking spaces and potentially, revenue. The meters' two-way wireless technology can alert the parking authority to problems immediately.

Other major cities from New York to Seattle are using similar parking technology.

So how can something so seemingly simple vex so many in Philadelphia?

For starters, the meters are located in only one or two spots per block - which means there's no meter beside the vehicle - and for the technologically challenged, first-time use presents a puzzle.

"I've lived around here a long time and I just want to know what the heck is going on. What was wrong with the old meters?" said Hilda Schoenwetter, a retired teacher who parks frequently at Head House Square.

There's nothing wrong with the old meters -- all 14,500 in the city -- the multi-space devices just take up less sidewalk space, particularly in Head House Square where there are often events and sidewalk dining.

Head House Square is the only spot in the city with the new meters. The old meter heads have been dismantled, but the poles will remain in the ground until the new meters can be observed for several months to make certain the program is successful, said Edward Thornton, director of the authority's parking management.

Ed Gray, a driver looking for a space, said he didn't like having to walk over to the meter in the middle of the block instead of having one right at his parking space.

Maryann Dolan, seeking a space so she could bring her dog in for a doctor's appointment, looked at one new meter and said: "I don't know what I'm doing here. I think it's just ridiculous."

In order to ease some of the initial confusion about the machines, the Parking Authority assigned "meter greeters" for the first week of operation to explain how the new meters work.

But now Philadelphians are on their own.

"People always have some anxiety when you're introducing new technology," said Francis Westerfer, manager of meter operations.

Rita Goldberg, another customer parking in the square to do some shopping, said, "This is my first time doing it. But now that I know how it works, I think it's good."

Parking Authority personnel continue to help people get used to the new meters now that the greeters have gone. David Rodriguez, supervisor of meter operations, said, "Sometimes people don't see the signs and just don't see a meter at their space and walk off. So we try to help people get more familiar with it."

Patricia Bartlett, visiting from Hamilton, New Jersey, said, "The machine wouldn't take my credit card. I've tried three different cards. I finally had to go to the Wawa to get change."

For some in Philadelphia change is hard but officials in other cities advise patience.

William Timmer, consultant for the sale department of the Seattle Department of Transportation, said his city had similar problems when it introduced the new meters in 2003.

"Using credit cards was the biggest hurdle to get through. We had to do a lot of customer service as a city," said Timmer in a telephone interview . "But once you get past the learning curve, you'll really enjoy the technology."

Parking Authority officials, some of whom traveled to Seattle more than a year ago to learn about the meters, said the investment is worthwhile.

"Really to be honest, I think they make my job easier. When I need to write up a ticket, I only need to go to one machine," said Emma Talley, a ticketing supervisor.

Westerfer added, "If there's a malfunction or a machine needs to be collected, it can send a message by e-mail or a text to my cell phone so we know right away."

David Hammond, executive director of the South Street Head House District, began requesting the new meters four years ago.

The new meters will open up space on the square and remove impediments from the sidewalk, Hammond said.

"Now we can post messages electronically on the meters saying it's Sunday and parking is free. Before, if you forgot and fed the meter, oh well," said Hammond.

"And I thought it was time for Philadelphia to join the 21st Century," he added.

Many other cities in the United States have begun to rely on multi-space parking meters, including Chicago, Denver, Seattle, Portland, New Orleans, and New York.

Portland started its program in July 2002 and now has more than 1,200 "Smart Meters" which account for 95 percent of paid parking in the city, according to a Portland city report.

Keith Ehrensing, program coordinator of parking operations for the Portland Department of Transportation, said in a telephone interview , "Our total transactions are hovering at about 70 percent from credit cards. My costs are down. My revenue is up. What's not to like?"

Ehrensing added, "In the last year that we had just the old meters, our revenue from paid parking was about $7.5 million. We didn't change a thing other than the meters, and as of June 30, 2005, before our rates changed, our revenue was about $12 million."

There are no plans to install multi-space meters in other parts of the city at present, Parking Authority officials said. However, Hammond said he plans to spread the word to other neighborhoods if the meters prove to be a success in Head House Square.


Contact staff writer Katie Stuhldreher at 215-854-2601 or stuhldk@phillynews.com.

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