Coin Meters on Their Way Out in Chicago

The quadrupling of fees this year to park at most meters in Chicago marks only the beginning of changes coming to a curbside near your car.
The possibilities out there in the brave new world of street parking are limited only by the imagination-and thirst for profits-of the free-enterprise system that increasingly is taking over functions performed exclusively until now by the government.

Over time, more sophisticated "smart meters" will appear citywide, replacing today's balky pay-station kiosks that require drivers to walk back to their vehicles to place a time-stamped payment stub inside the windshield.

You can of course bid a nostalgic farewell to the decades-old pole-mounted meters with coin slots and expiration flags, as a result of the almost $1.2 billion deal Mayor Richard Daley announced last month to outsource parking management in the city over the next 75 years to Chicago Parking Meters LLC.

While city officials said it's too early to chart a specific timetable, drivers will be able more than ever to use credit cards and other payment forms instead of fumbling for coins as hourly meter rates rise to the equivalent of a restaurant hamburger.

In addition, motorists making use of electronic collection through personal ID numbers in their cell phones or other devices will not have to return to their vehicles to add time to meters. But drivers, beware: Technology is already available to close the gap on free parking and increase the odds of catching parking meter "scofflaws." The financial motivation to use it is strong.

Based on the experience elsewhere, the next generation of meters will probably be programmed to roll their clocks back to zero time left when a vehicle leaves a parking space, so the next driver cannot piggyback on a meter that was "over-fed."

Instead of pacing sidewalks checking each meter to meet their ticket-writing quotas, police and meter maids monitoring remote computers will be notified when a vehicle's time in a parking space has expired. Drivers may even get a text message on their mobile phones that they've been issued a fine. It's already happening in about 60 cities in France, where magnetic field technology at smart-meter parking spaces detects the presence of vehicles and alerts ticket-writing aides when meter time is expired.

Meanwhile, look for Chicago's ongoing experiment with an in-car automated parking meter, called ParkMagic, to be superseded by a more user-friendly mobile device some time after the parking concessionaire takes over.

"We consider ParkMagic a success story based on the feedback we received from customers, but it will be up to the private vendor to decide where to go from here," Chicago Revenue Director Bea Reyna-Hickey said.

Some 775 out of the 907 ParkMagic subscribers used the devices regularly since the pilot project began in 2007, according to the Chicago Department of Revenue.

For more than a year, your Getting Around reporter has been a ParkMagic subscriber. The technology is a decent start because it provides motorists the ease of paying for parking using a cell phone and the in-car meter placed inside the windshield.

But the next-generation of personal parking meters should be programmed to send an e-mail or a text message to drivers warning that meter time is running out. In addition, it should allow for the automatic reloading of money into the parking account, just like CTA Chicago Card Plus and Illinois Tollway I-PASS customers are able to prearrange.

Other possibilities include creation of a universal transportation card accepted for payment of parking at meters and off-street garages, for I-PASS, in-car meters and mass transit rides, said John Hammerschlag, president of Hammerschlag & Co., which specializes in parking development, acquisition and consulting.

"The easier you can make it for the consumer to pay, and setting parking rates appropriately so there are always some spaces available, results in fewer cars circling the block and more frequent turnover of parking spaces," Hammerschlag said.

Meanwhile, in addition to Chicago's new meter rates already being phased in, the Daley administration is proceeding with a controversial plan with the private concessionaire to impose "congestion pricing" on downtown meters and garages starting this year.

The strategy aims to increase mass-transit ridership and reduce the number of vehicles traveling to the central business district by charging higher meter rates during peak hours, raising the city tax on downtown parking garages and charging a congestion fee for operating delivery trucks in curb loading zones downtown during busy traffic periods.

Contact Getting Around at or c/o the Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Read recent columns at
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