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Wednesday, August 11, 2004 - Page updated at 12:59 A.M.
Pay stations perplex parkers
By Stuart Eskenazi
Last April, the city began a three-year undertaking to replace parking meters with automated pay stations, one per block. So far, about 140 have been installed, mostly in Pioneer Square and the waterfront. New to us, pay stations are the standard throughout Europe and in a handful of North American cities, including Portland.
The green kiosks issue validation stickers showing date and expiration time. After purchasing a sticker with either coin or credit card but not paper money parkers must affix it to the inside of a car window facing the curb.
One of the cars that didn't, a 1984 blue Volvo wagon, belonged to musician Sean London. His first encounter or lack thereof with the pay station cost him a $35 parking ticket.
After parking along South Washington Street, he and bandmate Hannah Roberts looked around and saw no meter to plug. So the two went about their business, shopping for a new guitar for Roberts.
"We figured this was just a nice street," said Roberts, of Eastlake.
"I should have known better," added London, of Rainier Beach. "To assume you are going to find free parking in Pioneer Square is pretty stupid."
When they returned to London's car, they found the citation under the windshield wiper, along with a how-to card explaining Seattle's new pay-station policies.
London had not heard about the switchover from meters to pay stations. Compounding matters was a signage problem: He parked on a block bisected by an alley, and the kiosk was on the far side of the alley. A "Pay Here to Park" sign above the kiosk was concealed by a tree. Another sign, this one on his half of the block, directing him to the kiosk was attached to a lamppost along a stretch of the curb where parking was restricted to police vehicles.
"It definitely doesn't strike your attention," London said. "It wasn't like I was trying to get away with anything."
Apprised of London's lousy afternoon, as well as the Times' observations, city officials earnestly jotted down notes.
"We're learning as we go, too," said Bill Jack, the city's manager of traffic-control programs.
About 500 pay stations will be installed by the end of the year, with the remainder of downtown, Capitol Hill and First Hill next in line. In three years, every Seattle neighborhood will have made the transition.
The pay stations issued 55,000 parking stickers last month, with 45 percent paid by credit card, said Tracy Krawczyk, Seattle's parking-policy and planning manager. The convenience of credit-card payment the minimum is $1.50 is a main reason the city decided to switch over.
That convenience and a gradual introduction of higher parking rates is expected to increase the city's parking revenue this year.
While parkers adjust to the new system, the city's parking-enforcement officers are practicing leniency, said Seattle Police Lt. William Edwards.
Since pay stations have been installed, the number of parking citations issued in Pioneer Square has decreased, he said, though it's unclear why. Very few parkers displaying a validation sticker improperly, such as on the dashboard or inside the windshield, have been ticketed, he said.
Although display instructions are written on both the machine and the receipt, there still are rookie mistakes.
"Really? You positive?" asked Ginger Wang, of Bellevue, after being advised that the receipt she was about to place on her dashboard needed to be stuck inside the curbside window.
"A parking meter is simple and self-explanatory," she said. "You just put money in and figure out how much time you are getting.
"This is a bad idea, this kind of payment method, especially placing the sticker on the inside of the side window. Who the heck would assume that? I speak English and I read English and I had a hard time figuring this out. Imagine how frustrating it would be for someone who can't."
Seattle's pay stations relay instructions in English, Chinese and Spanish.
In an effort to make parkers more comfortable with the new system, the city is distributing the instruction cards to merchants in areas where pay stations are being installed. And when the kiosks first go in, three "meter greeters" cruise the area throughout the day to tutor parkers through the learning curve.
When Portland began installing pay stations in June 2002, it dispatched one greeter per machine, said Keith Ehrensing, Portland's parking-operations program coordinator.
"They were out there telling the story about how easy it is to use the machine," he said. "And it is easy, when you know how. It's a just a matter of knowing how."
After London drove away with his $35 ticket, Nina Carter of Olympia took his spot, easing in her green Subaru wagon. Like London, she did not notice the pay station on the other side of the alley. So she jaywalked to feed money into the pay station across the street. Hunched over and squinting to read the instructions, she stood there for a good minute, baffled.
"I'm in a hurry for a meeting and I cannot figure this out!" she said. "The instructions are not clear!"
Carter was trying to determine where to insert her dollar bills. But the machines don't take paper money.
Krawczyk explained that even the most advanced bill-recognition technology is hinky. Visions of people standing in the rain as pay stations spit back bills instead of receipts compelled city officials to order machines that don't accept paper money.
Jack said most of the complaints the city is receiving are from people reporting a pay station as out of order. In fact, the machine works fine but the user is not following instructions. Often, the misperception arises because first-time users get impatient while the machine is authorizing a credit-card transaction, which can be slow.
Repeat users are more apt to figure it out. "It's not that hard," said Adam Snyder of Capitol Hill, who was paying for parking in Pioneer Square last week. "And it's usually more convenient to pay with a credit card."
Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or email@example.com
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