Along the busy restaurant district on East Passyunk Avenue, you can park in some spaces for three whole hours while you eat a leisurely dinner. All you’ll need is about four pounds of quarters to feed the meter.
That neighborhood, however, remains a holdout to the decades-old tradition of the coin-only meter. In the last 15 years, in Philadelphia and cities across the country, paying for street parking isn’t what it used to be. A technological revolution is underway – and more changes are coming soon.
“A lot is happening very fast,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles.
In the city, the coin-only meters no longer constitute a majority, now accounting for 43 percent of the paid street spaces.
Business districts throughout Philadelphia are asking for kiosks that accept credit cards in their neighborhoods, and the parking authority is starting to look at expanding those features and the app beyond Center City and University City.
Most — if not all — major cities now offer payment apps, according to the parking and transport ticketing company Flowbird, which has a U.S. headquarters in Moorestown and whose clients include Chicago, New York, Miami, Los Angeles — and Philadelphia. Other municipalities in the region are following suit.
The practice took off among cities in the last three years. But the trend is helping smaller municipalities catch up technologically with larger ones. Communities discouraged by the cost of continuously paying for credit-card capability at kiosks and the associated transaction fees can get around those costs by using an app.
“It’s so much cheaper for the cities, because they have no hardware to pay for,” Shoup said. “In some cities, the only way you can pay for parking is with an app. There’s no parking meters; there’s no hardware.”
With the adoption of the Parkmobile app last month, Lower Merion Township became one of the latest municipalities to skip “smart” kiosks in favor of an app.
Some years back, township officials considered updating their parking meters to accept credit cards. But to maintain the real-time connection for their use, the township would have had to pay a $5 fee for each of its 1,400 single-space meters or purchase new kiosks. Since parking is a mere 50 cents per hour — as opposed to the $1- to $3-per-hour meter rate in Philadelphia — the township could not absorb the credit-card fees, said Tom Pintande, director of parking services.
With the app, Lower Merion didn’t have to change its meters. The app takes its 40-cent transaction fee from customers, so the township doesn’t have to pay a credit-card fee.
“For a municipality like ours with small parking fees, that’s a good thing,” Pintande said.
And it gives customers — many of whom have smartphones — another way of paying. Those without smartphones can pay by dialing a number.
“If it’s hard for people to pay for parking, they’re not going to do it,” said Sean Renn, vice president of sales and marketing at Flowbird. “The more payment options you have, the better chance your compliance rate will be higher.”
That’s the thinking behind the PPA’s decision to try another payment wrinkle as early as midsummer: the use of license-plates numbers.
Corinne O’Connor, deputy executive director of the PPA, said the authority soon plans to bid for “pay-by-plate” systems for parking in Center City and University City. As in communities such as Collingswood and New Hope Borough, Bucks County (which also offers two apps and Apple Pay), drivers would enter their license-plate numbers into a kiosk, pay at the kiosk, and go about their business without having to return to their cars to put tickets on their dashboards.
“It’s all about the convenience,” O’Connor said.
While license-plate systems and parking apps are only going to grow in popularity, some communities — including Lower Merion, Princeton, and New York City — continue to offer prepaid, reloadable parking cards, which were popular a decade ago. Many places began using the payment cards as a bridge between coins and credit cards before they had the capability to take credit. The prepaid cards don’t require meters that are connected to the internet.
Drivers can put money back on their cards if they return to their vehicles before the paid-for time has expired, if their communities choose that option. People without smartphones can use them.
Municipalities also get their money right away when drivers buy prepaid cards, instead of waiting months for them to use parking spots. Cities also can sell advertisements on the cards.
The cards have some drawbacks. Customers in Lower Merion can reload their cards only by going to the municipal building, where a township employee must do it for them.
In 2014, the PPA stopped its 11-year-old prepaid “smart card” program, which did not offer reloadable cards. The agency cited the cost of envelopes and postage to mail the cards, maintenance for the machine that produced the cards, monthly fees to use the system, and staff time to activate the cards. Meanwhile, fewer people used the cards once kiosks began taking credit-card payments in 2009.
Communities and college campuses from New England to California use payment cards, said Seth Ward III, president and chief executive officer of the parking-meter company POM Inc.
One of POM’s clients is Princeton. It issues 4,000 new payment cards each year and the 14-year-old program pulls in nearly a quarter of Princeton’s meter revenue, said Marc Dashield, municipal administrator. Its meters are still coin-operated.
Princeton now is working through the details of adopting pay-by-phone.
With all these technological innovations, the days of the coin-only meter might be numbered. The first one popped up on a street in Oklahoma City in 1935, originally conceived as a way to keep traffic moving.
However, the revenue potential became evident, and the virus spread across the country. By 1937, they were on the streets of Atlantic City and Wilmington. Philadelphia resisted the trend, and the first meters didn’t appear in the city until the late 1940s.
In 2003, the city introduced payment cards, then later kiosks, and gradually the once mighty coin-only meter has been taking a backseat.
As to whether they all will disappear someday, a parking authority spokesman says, that’s “still under review.”