Joshua Perez brings his car to a slow stop on Allentown’s Hamilton Street and reverses into a familiar space. It’s a routine the Allentown resident repeats at least twice a week when he’s downtown to attend classes at Lehigh Carbon Community College . Each time, Perez hunts for a space around Hamilton Street. That’s where the modern credit-card parking meters are. “We’re in the 21st century,” Perez said. “I don’t use coins.”
This week, Allentown rolled out a 90-day trial of a new payment method that will open even more meters for Perez and others like him. For the first time, drivers in the city will be able to pay for parking with their cellphones via an app and cellphone program known as MobileNOW.
The Allentown Parking Authority is testing the service on mechanical meters on Linden, Walnut and North Fifth Streets. All participating meters are marked with stickers. If the program gets a reasonable amount of use, the authority plans to expand the service to all of the city’s parking meters, said Tamara Dolan, executive director of the authority.
Perez said he loves the idea. “It’s just way better,” he said.
Signing up for the cellphone pay meters takes minutes. Users set up an account online or on the MobileNOW app. The account is tied to a credit card, and, as with EZ Pass, users can add money to the account to cover the cost of parking.
Once a driver has an account, he or she can either scan a QR code posted on each participating meter or enter the meter number into the app. Drivers can choose how long they want to park and enable text alerts to warn them when their time is almost up.
But you don’t have to have a smartphone to participate. Drivers with flip phones can dial into the system via a phone number posted on the meters and enter the same information.
Because the service is being used in conjunction with the city’s traditional mechanical meters, the time a customer has paid for will not show up on the meter itself, Dolan said. But the authority will use a smartphone to view all active parking sessions on a street before issuing tickets.
In addition to speeding up the process of parking, the cellphone payments can also help drivers avoid getting tickets. Using the app, people can add more time to their parking meter without making the trek back to their cars. Maximum stays in each parking zone will still be enforced, Dolan said.
A 30-cent transaction fee is charged to a customer’s account for every parking session.
The addition of the service may change the type of revenue the parking authority receives, but it won’t increase it, Dolan said. As was the case when the authority installed credit-card meters on Hamilton Street, parking enforcement officers found drivers were more likely to put more money into the city’s meters when they had a more convenient way to do it.
But that also means the authority will write fewer tickets as more people park legally. That’s a bargain the authority is willing to make, Dolan said.
“Parking has to be managed based on the best parking opportunities not the best revenue opportunities,” Dolan said. “If we were looking for revenue, we would just be out ticketing. We wouldn’t be providing an easier way for folks to pay for parking.”
Allentown will be the second city in the Lehigh Valley to begin using MobileNOW. Bethlehem’s parking meters were outfitted with the same system in 2012. Bethlehem drivers used the program to park for 8,400 sessions last month, said Krista Tassa, chief customer satisfaction officer for MobileNOW. The program has been most popular on the South Side, where college students are concentrated.
Dolan said the proximity of other communities using MobileNOW made that service the most attractive when the contract was bid.
“What we’ve learned with [credit-card meters] is what we’ve said all along,” Dolan said. “Folks will pay for parking if you give them a convenient way to do it. We’re going to prove this theory with our old meters.”
Cellphone parking is the second major parking proposal unveiled in Allentown this month. Allentown City Council is considering a plan to extend enforcement of parking meters to 9 p.m., three hours longer than drivers are currently paying for.
Authority officials say the change would help protect parking spaces for businesses and residents as visitors to Allentown’s newly constructed arena flood the city this fall.
But council members have raised concerns about whether the extended hours would unfairly burden low-income center city residents. Discussions are ongoing about whether the extended hours should be limited to the area immediately around the arena or cover the entire parking meter district as the parking authority has proposed.
Council members are also looking at adjusting the city’s residential parking zones to accommodate residents who live in the central business district.
City officials said this week they’re trying to be proactive about the upcoming boost of traffic downtown. Managing Director Francis Dougherty told council the plans are just one piece of a larger strategy that also will involve a recently completed traffic study of the downtown.
By Emily Opilo, Of The Morning Call
MobileNOW! is a world pioneer and leading provider of mobile phone and other cashless payment methods for the parking industry. In addition to enabling virtual payment and collection options, the MobileNOW! platform offers full enforcement, management and reporting capabilities. For more information, visit Mobile-NOW.com