Was I in heaven?
No, I was in Scranton, Pa. Its new motto ought to be: Come for the Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour, Stay for the Easy Parking!
Since May, the humble burg 120 miles north of Philly has piloted a program called Pango that lets drivers use their smartphones to find and pay for parking at the city's 1,420 metered spaces. No such venture exists for Philly parking meters, although Philadelphia Parking Authority spokesman Marty O'Rourke says the PPA is developing request-for-proposal guidelines for a pilot operation here.
It can't happen soon enough. Systems like Pango (short for "pay and go") lessen the most common hassles of paid street parking: digging for change and restocking a meter or kiosk before either method times out.
Smartphone parking plans also keep money in your pocket, since you pay only for the time you actually use. No more padding extra minutes on the meter or overpaying at a kiosk just to be on the safe side of fleet-footed ticket-writers.
"I've gone from getting two tickets a week to maybe one every other week" using Pango, said Conway Rowe, owner of Gallucci's Music School across the street from the county courthouse on Scranton's atrociously crowded Washington Avenue. "I'd be in the middle of giving a lesson, and I couldn't leave to pay the meter."
Oh, sir, how well I've known your pain.
To try out Pango, I downloaded its free app on my iPhone, entered my license-plate number and billing info, and was good to go in about two minutes. Then I pulled up to a meter, which was flagged with a Pango sign indicating which of Scranton's two parking "zones" I was in. I entered the zone number on the app, hit the "start parking" button and headed off to see the city.
Although the meter would appear to be timed out, Scranton's parking-enforcement agents could enter my license-plate number on a Web-enabled handheld unit, see that I was running a Pango tab and move on to the next car.
Two hours later, I returned, hit "stop parking" on the Pango app and pulled away. I felt like Dick Tracy, circa 2013.
Pango is one of six companies offering smartphone parking services at about 750 locations in the United States, says Laurens Eckelboom, co-chair of the International Parking Institute's Smart Parking Alliance. The services cover street parking in big cities like Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., as well as parking areas at universities, transit authorities, private garages and the like. A handful of garages in Philly use similar apps.
That constitutes only about 2.2 to 2.5 percent of the country's parking "footprint," says Eckelboom, so the niche has plenty of room to grow and cash to make. On-street smart parking is already a $4.5 billion industry, he says; off-street smart parking is about $8.4 billion.
"About 80 to 90 percent of transactions are via mobile apps," he says, "but the systems have toll-free numbers, too, so you can still use your flip phone."
The systems make money through transaction fees, typically 35 cents per "session," which most users are happy to pay if it helps them avoid a pricey ticket.
That's the case in Scranton, says city Treasurer Chris Boland, who oversees Pango. The system's pilot period has been such a hit, the city has extended Pango's contract to May.
"We had 20,000 different parking 'sessions' in four months, which represents 13.4 percent of the local market share" of those who also use coins, tokens and credit cards at the meters, says Boland. "That's a good rate."
"Pango doesn't replace the current payment methods, it just expands them. Scranton has a significant older population; we don't think they'll ever use Pango. But younger people love it."
Beyond driver convenience, smart-technology systems can also provide real-time data to municipalities to track traffic congestion and parking usage and reduce coin-handling and maintenance costs associated with traditional meter use.
Oh - and the systems can send a nice "ding" to your cellphone when your parking time is about to run out. Hit a few buttons on your phone and, once more, you're good to go.
Or to stay, and savor a second cup of coffee at the deli.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly