The city's meter-lease deal puts the brakes on a pay-by-phone parking pilot program… for now.
On a recent Friday night, Amy Abrahams, a 42-year-old self-employed media buyer, was having dinner at her sister-in-law’s house in Lakeview when she realized her parking meter was about to expire. Calmly, the Irving Park resident pulled out her cell phone, dialed 888-4TO-PARK and, with the push of a couple of buttons, put another hour on the meter.
This may sound like a frustrated Chicago motorist’s fantasy, but since October 2007, a pay-by-phone parking option for Abrahams and about 1,000 others has been a reality. And in the spring of 2008, a few months before the parking-meter lease deal was approved, it seemed likely that phone would become the city’s new, convenient method of payment.
The Department of Revenue had just concluded a six-month pilot program to test ParkMagic, a system that replaces pay-and-display paper slips with a $15 in-car meter that resembles an I-PASS transponder. The unit is mounted on a vehicle’s driver’s-side dash and can be fed remotely with a phone call.
The program was a resounding success, according to an independent study that found 97.6 percent of the initial 1,000 users liked the system and would recommend it to others. “The only comments we got back from the study were people wondering how they could get other people involved in the program,” says Jim O’Connell, director of operations for ParkMagic’s North American office, located in Bedford, New Hampshire. The four-year-old company’s product is widely used in its home country of Ireland; Chicago was the company’s first major toehold in the U.S. market.
In August ’08, due to the favorable response and a growing waiting list, O’Connell announced that 2,000 more in-car units would soon be made available. That never happened. With the city up to its eyeballs in parking-meter lease proposals, the ParkMagic program was unofficially shelved.
When we mention ParkMagic to the new owners of the city’s meters, it’s clear the program is not a priority. Carissa Ramirez, a spokeswoman for Morgan Stanley, the lead investor in Chicago Parking Meters LLC (CPM), was unaware ParkMagic existed. CPM spokeswoman Avis LaVelle told us, after several seconds spent trying to recall ParkMagic, “[CPM] is aware of [ParkMagic], but I don’t want to give you the impression that it’s seriously being considered.” Later, she phoned us to backpedal: “CPM is aware of ParkMagic, and they continue to evaluate it as an option.” (Despite our inquiry, LaVelle would not reveal the criteria CPM is using to appraise ParkMagic.)
Last month, Chicago’s ParkMagic pilot program—originally scheduled to take six months—turned two years old. Abrahams and her husband, among the users singing ParkMagic’s praises in the initial online study, can’t understand why CPM hasn’t made ParkMagic available to all Chicago motorists. “It’s so convenient. You never have to run down the street to buy more time,” Abrahams says. “Every person who sees that I have it wants to get it.”
Aside from the convenience factor, ParkMagic has also helped Abrahams successfully fight two parking tickets she received. Since each user has access to an online parking history, detailing dates and times, Abrahams saw that the tickets were written before her meter had expired. ParkMagic even offers to contact the city on the driver’s behalf. “I called ParkMagic and told them my situation,” Abrahams says, “and I never heard about the tickets again.”
Abrahams allows that she has only one concern about the program: It’s spoiling her. “I’d be hugely disappointed if they stopped doing it,” she says. “It definitely makes life easier.”