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Drivers in D.C. area flock to phones for parking payment

Thursday - 10/6/2011, 10:27am  ET

Enter the number attached to the meter and a text message will confirm your payment, and remind you when you have 15 minutes left. This information then goes into a database parking enforcment officers can access. (WTOP/Paul D. Shinkman)

Paul D. Shinkman,

WASHINGTON -- Time is running out for D.C. parking meters.

The number of drivers in the D.C. area using smartphone apps to pay for street parking is steadily climbing, and some transit experts say a future without meters altogether is possible.

D.C. first introduced its partnership with Parkmobile in July. Already, one in five parking transactions takes place through the system -- available on Android, BlackBerry and iPhone devices -- which accounts for 55 percent of all pay-by-phone parking in the city.

That number is growing, says Laurens Eckelboom, executive vice president of Parkmobile USA.

The D.C. program is "without doubt the most successful parking program in the U.S. so far," he says, adding it even competes with "more mature" markets for mobile payments in Europe. "Since our start in the U.S. in 2008, we haven't seen these types of adoption rates."

More than 100,000 users in the D.C. area have registered with the program, with roughly one-third from Virginia and another 25 percent from Maryland, Eckelboom says. About 1,000 new users joined each day in August, followed by 1,300 a day in September.

Eckelboom credits the popularity to the high demand for parking in the city, as well as the technological savvy of many area residents. The Atlanta-based company hasn't yet broken down popularity by neighborhood, but Eckelboom expects increased interest around Foggy Bottom and George Washington University.

"I'm really impressed by it, also by the strategy and long-term vision of the (District's Public Works and Transportation departments)," he says.

Mobile parking also reduces the "wear and tear" of traditional curbside meters. D.C. Department of Transportation spokesperson John Lisle says damaged meters generate the most complaints to his department from area drivers.

After downloading the Parkmobile app, users add their credit card information for instant billing. Upon finding a space, they enter a five-digit code found on the parking meter or a nearby sign to activate parking for however long they choose and what's allowed in that spot. A text message alerts the driver that the parking session has begun, and reminds 15 minutes before it expires.

The information is added into a database which parking enforcement officers can access from handheld devices. Sharing this information has caused some to wonder if ticketers can then "hunt" for those whose meters have expired.

"From a database perspective, from an integration perspective, I'll bet it is possible," says Eckelboom, "but from my understanding and what I know, they don't do that."

"And from a broader perspective, I don't think it would be very well received by the public."

Lisle points out a parking officer would also need to be present to determine whether a car was still in the space.

"Not everyone is paying by phone, so you can't patrol parking remotely like that and know if everybody on the block is paid," he says.

A lack of physical evidence that the parking fees are paid also opens the door to erroneous tickets, though Lisle says the mobile app's track record is pretty strong. There haven't been any falsely issued tickets in 99.7 percent of cases, he says.

And 95 percent of users are "satisfied" with the service, says Eckelboom.

"I think it's working well and the feedback has been great," Lisle says. "I think it's spelled out in the numbers."

As for the future of parking meters, their use may be surpassed, but they aren't yet obsolete.

"It's possible to have no meters -- the technology is there," Lisle says. "The thing that stands in the way is there are still a lot of people who don't have cellphones, and still a lot of people who want to put coins in a meter."

"I don't think everybody is ready for that yet."

Parkmobile has plans to expand in the region.

"The larger the footprint, the better it is," Eckelboom says.

Montgomery County also has a competing program which charges $0.35 per usage, compared to Parkmobile's $0.32.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)