Wireless, digital parking meters smart enough to ID stolen cars

-- Technology is taking much of the fun out of finding a place to park the car -- In Pacific Grove, Calif., parking meters know when a car pulls out of the spot and quickly reset to zero - eliminating drivers' little joy of parking for free on someone else's quarters.
In Montreal, when cars stay past their time limit, meters send real-time alerts to an enforcement officer's hand-held device, reducing the number of people needed to monitor parking spaces - not to mention drivers' chances of getting away with violations.

Meanwhile, in Aspen, Colo., wireless "in-car" meters may eliminate the need for curbside parking meters altogether: They dangle from the rear-view mirror inside the car, ticking off prepaid time.

These and other innovations are reshaping the parking meter, a device that dates to 1933.

Variety of new models

meter.jpgElectronic and digital parking meters arrived in the 1980s and 1990s, but real change began a few years ago, when municipalities began toying with meters that regulate a number of spaces at once, including "pay and display" models that print out receipts for drivers to place on their dashboards.

Those multispace models solve many of the problems associated with regular meters, which are ugly, error-prone and easy to vandalize and only take coins. Multispace meters are efficient and harder to vandalize - and they take credit and debit cards, as well as cash.

Parking czars in municipalities across the country are starting to realize parking meters' original goals: generating revenue and creating continuous turnover of parking spaces on city streets.

Now, in cities from New York to Seattle, the door is open to a host of wireless technologies seeking to improve the parking meter even further.

Chicago and Sacramento, Calif., among others, are equipping enforcement vehicles with infrared cameras capable of scanning license plates. Using a global positioning system, the cameras can tell which individual cars have parked too long in a two-hour parking zone.

At a cost of $75,000 a camera, the system is an expensive upgrade of the old method of chalking tires and then coming back two hours later to see if the car has moved.

Camera helps find stolen cars

camera.jpgThe camera system also helps identify scofflaws and stolen vehicles by linking to a database of unpaid tickets and auto thefts. Sacramento bought three cameras in August, and since then its practice of "booting," or immobilizing, cars with a lot of unpaid tickets has increased sharply. Revenue is soaring.

According to Howard Chan, Sacramento's parking director, Sacramento booted 189 cars and took in parking revenue of $169,000 for the fiscal year that ended in June 2004; for fiscal 2005, the city expects to boot 805 cars and take in more than $475,000.

Chan says his department has located 11 stolen cars since it started using the camera system in April. The city plans to buy two more cameras.

Coral Gables, Fla., recently became one of the first U.S. cities where drivers can buy parking time using their cell phones.

payment by cell phone
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