I’ve never read William Gibson’s novels, and I am generally unfamiliar with his ideas. But I like this quote of his:
This is true to some degree with any matter of human existence that interfaces with technology, and transportation, including parking– is no different.
Our family spent Easter weekend in Asheville, NC. DW grew up there and whenever we visit, we usually spend some time (or lots of time) enjoying all that Asheville’s downtown has to offer. The transformation of downtown into what is perhaps North Carolina’s most vibrant urban environment since the mid-90s is quite remarkable, and we enjoy seeing the changes there when we visit.
Given the amount of time I have spent writing on this blog about parking recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least some elements of the Future of Parking have arrived in Asheville.
Most notably, Asheville has implemented pay-by-phone parking across many (but curiously not all) spaces in downtown. Here’s how it works:
1. After you find a parking space, you get out of your car and make a choice between putting quarters, nickels and dimes into a conventional parking meter adjacent to your space, or paying for use of the space with your smartphone. Signage on the street near public parking spaces lets you know what zone you are in.
2. Once you know your zone, you can fire up an app on a smartphone, text, or call an operator via phone to pay. The remainder of the steps below are showing the smartphone procedure. You look at the space number on the parking meter (in this case, 3) to enter into the software.
3. From here the phone app takes over. I had downloaded the Passport Parking app and registered my phone and credit card number. Once you sign in using a pin you designate, you specify the zone (which part of the city) you are renting a space in.
4. Next you specify the parking space itself: (I also parked once in space 17, and space 18. I forgot to get a screenshot for space 3, but you get the idea)
5. Finally, you receive a screen where you can select how many hours and minutes you want, which then gives you a summary and your total anticipated parking charge:
You’ll notice that you’re paying $0.25 extra to pay for parking via phone, on top of a base price of $1.25 for 75 minutes, or a quarter for every 15 minutes. Is this surcharge worth it? Imagine you’re at a restaurant, having a good time with friends, and you realize it’s 3 minutes until the meter runs out, and the restaurant is 5 minutes away on foot. And it’s raining. Would you rather sprint back to the car to feed the meter $0.50, or reach into your pocket, tap your phone a few times, and extend your parking by 30 minutes for $0.75?
It’s this ability to change your plans on the fly and still avoid a ticket or a backtracking walk across downtown that makes the service worth the extra quarter.
6. Finally, the app even gives you the option to be reminded when you’re getting down to a certain number of minutes so that you know when to start walking back to your car, or to make the extension payment and keep on doing what you were doing.
Notice the option to Extend your parking is at the bottom left, and Validation (I did not get to try this in Asheville) is at the right.
The system emails or texts you a receipt if you like, so if you’re on business and need to turn such things in, it’s easy to do so. All in all, I found it very convenient, and the system did what it was supposed to do.
Opportunities for Improvement
Asheville could make this system a little better with a few simple improvements.
- First, the meter poles are labeled, but many of the meter poles manage parking for two spaces. There’s some confusion on the two-space poles which space number you should enter into the system. It’s less confusing for the user if every space on the street is individually marked.
- Market pricing of spaces. It was clear driving around that some spaces were in much greater demand, yet the price was uniform as far as I could tell across most zones. Raising prices on busier blocks and lowering them on less-busy blocks would lead to better utilization on the further-away blocks and also make more spaces available on the best blocks.
- Finally, I’m not sure what the significance of the Zone numbers were. I expected zones to change by block, but it seemed like two-thirds of downtown was in Zone 48, and the rest of the zones seemed haphazard. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to be telling me. Perhaps using more zones would have made things clearer; perhaps not.
The Bottom Line
As I mentioned above, the future of parking is already arriving piecemeal in North Carolina, though it has not yet reached Carrboro. Asheville is using pay-by-smartphone technology effectively, but has not improved its hardware (meters and labels) or policy (pricing/rates) to keep up with its advanced software. Hopefully those improvements will come soon.
The type of advanced parking system I think we ultimately will need in Carrboro involves several improvements over the status quo, and the type of software implementation shown here, already working well in Asheville, is one element of that advanced parking system.