City Lets You Pay Parking Meters With Cell Phones

After what seems like hours of driving around in circles, you've finally found that one rare, open parking spot on a busy, shop-lined city street. But relief turns to exasperation with one sudden, sinking realization: You have no change to feed the meter.

Rather than run around begging store owners to break your bills for coins, the city of Coral Gables, Fla., offers drivers a much simpler solution: Whip out your cell phone.

This month, the Miami suburb began offering drivers a high-tech payment system called PayMint. Created by Toronto-based Mint Technologies and already in use in several Canadian cities, the cell phone-based technology is simple to use.

Cashless drivers pull into any metered spot in the city and then call a phone number listed on the parking meter. They register personal information -- a credit card number and the car's license plate number -- and enter the meter's number using the phone's keypad.

Computers, equipped with an electronic record of the parking fee schedules associated with that meter, then charge the correct amount -- plus a 25-cent "convenience fee" -- to the driver's credit card.

To pay for more time -- to extend an unexpectedly long shopping trip, for example -- a driver simply calls the PayMint phone number again. The PayMint system uses CallerID to identify the driver and the appropriate spot. When the driver is finally ready to leave, another call ends the billing and generates an electronic receipt that can be sent to the driver's cell phone or to a pre-registered e-mail address.

Citizens' Convenience Versus City's Coffers

Stephen Jack, director of marketing at Mint Technology, says the PayMint system -- the first of its kind to be used in the United States -- offers several distinct advantages to drivers.

"People lack change and that's the big thing," says Jack. "They either never have the coins for the meter -- and then have to use a [parking] lot -- or they don't have the right amount." And that often means a frenzied race to make change at a shop or from a friendly passer-by.

Maria Rosa Higgins Fallon, public affairs manager for Coral Gables, says the decision to add PayMint service was indeed about convenience for the city's 43,000 residents and visitors.

"Everyone uses their cell phones for everything down here," says Fallon. "If you're on a second floor attending a business meeting, you don't want to say, 'Excuse me, I have to go put more money in the meter.' You just discreetly use your phone [to pay] for more time."

But what about potential loss of city revenue from tickets for expired meters?

"The city is not worried about the money it's losing," says Fallon. "We want to be the first in the U.S. to offer this type of service and that's what we're known for. We're gaining credibility for the amount of services we offer for residents and the number of people who do business in Coral Gables. And this is a beautiful way of paying for parking."

Potential Scoffers, Beware

What's more, adding the technology -- essentially software programming by Mint Technology -- was time-consuming, but not difficult.

"In Coral Gables, the longest part of the installation was inputting and testing the parking rates," says Mint Technology's Jack. "Parking is ... difficult to program because of the complex fee schedule -- [at the same meter] you may park for two hours at this rate during ... a certain part of the day, or four hours at this rate at this time."

What's more, the city didn't have to change to new high-tech meters. Jack says the meters -- now plastered with labels touting the PayMint phone number and directions -- still accept coins from drivers without cell phones.

Still, the mix of low- and high-tech system means Coral Gables police have an interesting new way to find meter deadbeats.

The standard meters will still display a flashing "expired" signal to patrolling police officers. Parking enforcement agents will then tap into PayMint's electronic payment database using wireless Blackberry handheld devices. By simply tapping in a car's license plate information and the parking zone data, officers will know whether a driver has paid or trying to pull a fast one over on the city.

Fallon says the PayMint system has been operational for the past two weeks and so far more than 200 city residents have electronically registered to use the system. But since the city began its official publicity campaign on Wednesday, she says the city easily expects many more will become PayMint users.