Smart Card Parking Smart

J. David Allen found University of Maryland College Park’s claim to fame as he strolled through the vendor booths at a parking trade show in 1994. Of course, at that time electronic parking meters were cutting-edge technology but not unheard of -- it was the debit card (or smart card) twist that caught this director of campus parking’s eye. Heck, to this day even major cities can’t really claim they’ve jumped on this particular bandwagon -- although Pittsburgh did implement 750 units throughout its streets in May -- since debit cards represent a hard sell to citizens whose individual needs for public parking spaces vary drastically. Few shell out $20 or more in advance parking fees under those circumstances.

But university students’ predictable schedules mean routine parking patterns, a fact Allen knows intimately. “And I like being a guinea pig,” he admits of his status as the first campus in the country to install smart card meters. After all, the benefits stack up: A prepaid card system means students avoid pocketfuls of quarters, Allen’s collection time gathering those pesky coins is reduced and electronic parts break down less often than mechanical counterparts.

As an added bonus, his vendor, POM out of Russellville, Ark., offers several upgrade features to enhance the sponsor’s image. For instance, Des Moines, Iowa, this summer installed electronic meters that register 15 free minutes at the push of a button -- a move to entice errand-runners to consider the city’s downtown merchants. Allen chose the payback feature, which refunds unused time on the meter in 30-minute increments. “We aren’t always the most liked people in the world,” he explains. “We write tickets so we’re known as the bad guys -- a money-hungry cash cow for the university.

“As soon as these meters hit the streets with the refund angle, we got press we could not possibly buy. I urge anyone to take this option -- it may cost you a couple of dollars, but the positive public relations is well worth it.”

However, Allen faced a budget problem the moment he returned to UMCP. The campus needed to replace 1,600 meters at $200 each, “plus, there wasn’t anything necessarily wrong with the meters we had,” he adds of the tough sell. Allen broke the $320,000 bill into a three-part roll-out phased across 18 months, paying each increment from savings he gleaned in the department’s operating budget. He did manage to find buyers for the old meters to alleviate some of the cost, but the monetary return amounted to pennies on the dollar.

UMCP also purchased only the inner workings rather than the entire meter casing and pole. Allen relied on the university’s computer programmers to set the rates at 50 cents an hour for a two-hour maximum (this step took just 24 hours), then he and his staff installed the workings. “You open the top like a hat, pull the guts out, drop the new guts in and move on to the next meter,” he says with a shrug. He estimates they switched 100 meters per day.

Allen ensured student cooperation by selecting the most popular parking spots on campus for phase one of the rollout. Parking garages in particular represented a no-brainer choice, as students often prefer weather-protected spots close to campus buildings. Large signs stating “Debit Card Only, No Coins” at these spaces called immediate attention to this new way of life. “Students snapped them right up,” he says. Totaled, UMPC offers 18,500 parking spaces that turn over at least twice a day; currently, the campus estimates it has 6,000 debit cards in circulation to allow users access to these 1,600 meter spots. A recharge machine in the parking division’s lobby allows users to replenish the cards’ value conveniently without replacing them.

Allen does not calculate his savings in dollars -- he weighs the meters’ value in convenience terms. However, officials at a large, metropolitan university in the Southwest (they wish to remain unnamed so as to not endorse specific brand names), who also installed electronic parking meters in August 1995 to reduce maintenance fees and improve auditability, claim they recouped their $70,000 upgrade cost by September 1996. They previously experienced a seven to 10 percent malfunction rate; the new meters, from Duncan Eagle, have generated virtually no problems. This also reduces by half the number of “spares” kept on hand in their inventory. “We could reduce further, but old habits die hard,” one spokesperson admits.

Again, Allen’s public relations angle reigns as the important payoff on his bottom line. “If you can reduce the number of tickets, that’s a good thing. If we make less money because of it -- and we do write fewer tickets every year -- we adjust our regular parking fee to accommodate,” he says. Meanwhile, the Mr. Nice Guy attitude he’s cultivated occasionally bites his hand. From the get-go, students claimed the meter erased the entire $50 they purchased the day before. To Allen’s knowledge, such malfunctions are impossible, but he kindly refunded the credits. However, as the story continued to parade before his carpet, he suspected the grapevine effect kicked in to sucker his department.

Today, this remains a sticky situation. The campus parking director posted signs warning that parking officers are not responsible for lost value. “But when we actually talk to people, if they seem credible we simply refund their money, stressing that they get just one grace note. If the card doesn’t work a second time, maybe you shouldn’t use meters,” runs his standard speech. Allen expects POM to introduce a new feature that stores the last 10 transactions on a card, so parking departments can review activity for abnormalities.

Count on UMCP to drive at the front of the pack when it does.

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