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Free Parking? Philadelphia’s Kiosks Don’t Care

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file photo (credit: KYW's Dennis Edward)

file photo (credit: KYW’s Dennis Edward)

Ian Bush Ian Bush
Ian Bush is an anchor, reporter, news editor, and technology editor&nb...
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By KYW’s Ian Bush

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - Street parking is free in Philadelphia after 11am tomorrow, as it is every Saturday between Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you didn’t know, you’re not alone: many people still pay. But if those parking kiosks are so “smart,” why can’t they be programmed not to take your cash?

The city is lucky to have good Samaritans who might just catch the multi-space meter-feeders in time, before they insert cash, coin, or card. And it’s not just during the festive season: the PPA offers free meter parking after 5pm on Wednesdays, and often suspends regulations on national holidays — as long as you know (and remember) not to pay.

So couldn’t the parking authority prevent everybody from wasting their money?

“Not without a software change.”

Fran Westerfer is the manager of parking meter operations.

“What that would do — the kiosk would always be on, but the screen would display something like ‘free parking’ and then it would be programmed to not accept money.”

He says such an upgrade hasn’t been planned, but could be considered once the PPA is “comfortable that all the kiosks are working in a satisfactory manner.”  The only other way to force the kiosks to refuse payment, he says?

“We would have to physically go out and turn all the kiosks off.”

That, he says, is logistically impossible.  Around 1000 of the machines have been installed since the summer of 2009.  Westerfer says they could have had the system programmed to refuse payment on holidays and at other free times, but…

“There was no discussion in the pre-implementation process with me to program these kiosks to do that. It’s been standard past practice to do it this way.”

PPA deputy executive director Linda Miller says she believes such a feature — shutting the multi-space meters’ mouths when money’s not needed — will be implemented within the next year:

“We are just finishing up the implementation of the kiosks, and are making sure they’re working in a proper manner.  We definitely are looking at future software changes that will let citizens know when they do not have to feed the kiosks.”

So how about a low-tech notification?

To promote the annual free parking days, on-street parking director Corinne O’Connor says the PPA put signs under windshield wipers of cars in Center City:

“They’re called ‘holiday gift cards,’ and let you know you don’t have to feed the meter. Just the safety violations are enforced.”

But what about those who didn’t get the flyer, didn’t hear the news coverage — or maybe just forgot? They’re still paying. We asked Miller why the PPA doesn’t simply post the “free parking” information on the kiosk as a reminder:

“Who knows — someone might mark it up and then put something else on the card because it’s easy to change and deface. So we try to stay away from things like that other than having what’s actually on the kiosk.”

O’Connor says there’s another reason the PPA counts on word of mouth:

“Even if we do the software update with the kiosks, that doesn’t cover the whole city. You still have 7000 single-space meters out in Manayunk, Mayfair, and Kensington — you’re still going to have to rely on that press release and looking at our website.”

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