Bethlehem introduces Easy Park
October 1, 2013
Bethlehem rolls out a personal parking meter that motorists can carry in their cars.
By Nicole Radzievich, Of The Morning Call
9:47 p.m. EDT, October 1, 2013
Bet Carl Magee never saw this coming.
The man generally credited with inventing the parking meter in the 1930s would likely marvel at the latest iteration of the device today: a meter you carry with you in your car.
Bethlehem, which has already introduced several other ways to make feeding the meter faster and more convenient, rolled out this week gadgets that are linked to the driver's prepaid account.
Motorists pull into a metered spot and tap out some information on a screen. That information includes what zone they're in - $1-an-hour, on-street spot or 75-cent-an-hour parking lot spot - and how long they want to stay. The personal meter then deducts the money from a prepaid account.
Pay for three hours but come back an hour early? No problem. The meter only deducts money for the time motorists use.
But keep an eye on the clock. When the money runs out, the box flashes "expired" the same way a traditional meter does. That makes the vehicle a target for a ticket.
"I can see this helping not only people coming to our downtowns but also businesses - a pizza delivery business or an attorney who has different clients coming in and out of an office all day," said Tom Hartley, director of the Parking Authority.
That's because the device isn't connected to one vehicle - just one prepaid account. The device can be lent to a friend or a client. Periodically, users will add money to their accounts by connecting the device via USB port.
Hartley said the device requires nominal investment, a couple thousand dollars, on the authority's part. Motorists buy the device for $25 and have $5 worth of prepaid minutes loaded. The device costs the user $1.50 a month and $2.95 every time money is added to the account.
Hartley said he is in discussions to bring the technology to Easton and Allentown as well. The same meter would be designed to be used in all three cities, charging the appropriate rates and remitting the money to the municipality.
Parking officials in Allentown and Easton said the personal parking meters piqued their interest.
"The more ability you give a customer to pay for parking, the more likely they are to park legally," said Tamara Dolan, executive director of the Allentown Parking Authority. "It's another tool."
Easton Administrator Glenn Steckman said parking officials will continue exploring the possibility, but their attention is focused on creating more spots right now, given demand is so high on certain days that the Easton garage is full to capacity.
Steckman said he likes the idea of in-vehicle meters but has questions about the longevity of the devices. With technology improving so quickly, Steckman raised concerns about how quickly the devices would be outdated.
"We are looking to expand the convenience factor and are doing a number of things - variable rates, better signage, the introduction of credit card-accepting meters," Steckman said.
Personal meters are not a high priority but the city will continue to explore the possibility, he said.
It's hard to say how many people in Bethlehem will use the device - they'll be sold on demand.
But early indicators in New Hampshire, which debuted the same EasyPark device in December, show people like the idea.
Dover parking manager Bill Simons said his city of 30,000 has sold 200 devices since December. There was an even bigger payday in Portsmouth, a city of 24,000, which sold 800. The much larger city of Manchester, which is joining the New Hampshire consortium of personal meters, could sell 800 overnight, he said.
"What we're finding is the majority of those who want them are downtown visitors, people running to stores and want the convenience factor," Simons said. "What we've been finding is the people who use them are staying longer, an average of 15 minutes longer. What that tells us is that they are having that second cup of coffee or going into a second store."
Lynn Cunningham, a vice president at the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, said Bethlehem merchants did a test drive with the boxes and loved the convenience factor.
"When you think about it, it's a lot like the E-ZPass. Before it, you had to dig into the console for quarters and you didn't realize how easy it is to use," Cunningham said. "If this catches on in Bethlehem, I think it could do well Valley-wide."
The system is one of the recent parking convenience programs the authority rolled out in recent years. Bethlehem Parking Authority has also introduced smart, credit-card accepting meters, pay-by-phone options and a limited valet service.
Dan Sheehan contributed to this story.
How it works
•Motorists pull into a metered spot and tap out some information on a device linked to a prepaid account.
•Drivers post what zone they are parked in - $1-an-hour on-street spot or 75-cent an hour parking lot spot - and how long they plan to stay.
•The personal meter then deducts the money from a prepaid account.
•The cost: Motorists buy the device for $25, pay $1.50 a month and $2.95 every time money is added to the account.