As Ithaca rolls out Parkmobile app, parking confusion and frustrations abound

August 16, 2015 by Mark H. Anbinder

The City of Ithaca is gradually rolling out new parking paystations around downtown, replacing parking meters in stages. The new paystations offer lots of advantages, for the City and for parkers, but the disadvantages are getting attention.

One of Ithaca's new solar-powered parking paystations in Downtown Ithaca. 14850 photo.One of Ithaca's new solar-powered parking paystations in Downtown Ithaca. 14850 photo.For some, having to pay for parking at all is a source of irritation. As a result, merchants in the dense downtown and Collegetown areas are at a disadvantage for attracting vehicular shoppers, who may choose to head to the southwest or northeast shopping plazas and malls, with their plentiful parking lots.

That's why the City and the Downtown Ithaca Alliance have experimented with covering an hour or two of free parking in the City-owned garages, and why DIA is working on a plan that will let merchants pay for customers to park. The Bike Rack in Collegetown has long advertised "We'll pay for an hour in the Dryden Road parking garage," and the new Luna Inspired Street Food on Stewart Avenue offers to apply the cost for diners parking in the lot across the street to their check.

Rolling out in stages

One factor that's adding to the confusion and frustration is that the City is adding its new electronic paystations in stages, not only in small sections in town, but with only one unit per block at first. "I would love two machines on some of the blocks, especially where there is a busy street, but we only got so much budget to work with and had to spread them thin this time out," says Frank Nagy, the City of Ithaca's Director of Parking. "We have asked for more budget for 2016," he adds, which will allow the City to expand to other areas that still have meters, and fill in a second paystation on busy blocks.

Time for a rousing game of find-the-paystation!Time for a rousing game of find-the-paystation!The unfortunate result is that people on one side of the street will have to cross to the paystation for now -- and since the solar-powered units are placed for maximum sun exposure, the location varies from block to block. One downtown merchant says, "I keep seeing confused people jaywalking to dart across to pay for their parking. What does someone who's older or handicapped do?"

Meters remain at handicap spaces for just that reason, though there, too, drivers can choose to use the paystations or, now, the Parkmobile app.

In areas that still have parking meters, drivers should use those. Areas of Ithaca that have had the meters removed -- the poles are still in place for now -- should have a paystation on that block, though it may be on the other side of the street.

There are also a couple of paystations on the Commons, as an alternative to crossing the street to another nearby paystation if you're heading to the Commons anyway. Shoppers (or store owners) can also use these to add parking time if they're running out, without having to go all the way back to their car.

How's it enforced?

Ithaca's parking patrol vehicles (as well as some police vehicles) are now equipped with license plate scanners, which will automatically see who's parked on a block as the vehicle goes by. A license plate that doesn't match one that has paid for parking, or whose parking has expired, will be flagged -- and the officer can stop and write a ticket. The same tools will allow the City to more effectively enforce parking limits even where there isn't paid parking: vehicles left in one spot longer than 72 hours are considered abandoned, and may be towed at the owner's expense.

One source of confusion is that you need to enter your license plate number on the parking paystation, so some drivers have found they have to go back to the car to check it. The good news is that this means you don't have to return to your car to leave a receipt on the windshield. The system keeps track of which vehicles have been paid for.

Parkmobile's available at last

The promised pay-by-app feature wasn't ready at first. "A lot more dotting of i's and crossing the t's is required," Nagy explained to us last week, adding that the City wasn't able to wait to start using the paystations until Parkmobile was ready because "People were ripping the bags off the paystation to try to use them. We needed to go!"

Now that it's available, drivers can skip the paystations and use the Parkmobile app on a smartphone, or access the service from any SMS-capable phone by sending texts. Because Parkmobile uses credit cards rather than cash, incurring merchant card processing fees, there's a 75-cent minimum charge. There's no such minimum when paying with coins at the paystation, says Nagy. "Whatever a nickel buys, a nickel buys."

For the same reason, there's a 25-cent fee to extend your parking time using a credit card, whether by responding to the automatic text the system can send you to remind you your time's expiring, or by using the Parkmobile app. (The fee is charged not by the City but by the provider.) Drivers have the option of walking back to a paystation to add to their parking time with coins without the fee.

The minimums "could be lowered if we get the volume we need," says Nagy.

Big advantages

One significant advantage of the City's new parking plan, whether you're using a paystation or the Parkmobile service, is the ability to extend your parking without having to go back to your car. The Parkmobile app can let you know when your paid time is about to expire, or the system can send you a text.

Another is that once you've paid for parking, you can move to another area and continue using your unused time. That lessens the likelihood or impact of the "Oops!" moment when you realize a store is closed after you've paid for an hour of parking and have nothing else to do on that block.

The Parkmobile app is also already familiar to many folks in the area, who have been using it to pay for short-term parking in lots at Cornell University.

What's the downside?

Of course, because the paid parking is tied to your license plate, it eliminates the good-karma option of handing someone your partially used parking receipt or leaving behind a meter with time left on it. Those parking receipts were generated by the City's first try with parking paystations, a simpler approach where you did need to take the ticket back to your car to leave it on the dashboard -- but didn't have to know your license plate.

The new parking system comes along with a jump in the parking rate from $1 an hour to $1.50. "I used a regular parking meter on State Street this morning, and was surprised that my quarter only bought me ten minutes," says a reader. If the City finds parking spaces are underused as drivers avoid the hourly rate, they would be able to easily reprogram the paystations -- remotely -- to a lower rate. Or, they can set different hourly rates for different parts of town, as has been true before with the mechanical meters.

It's all too easy to imagine you could increase parking rates by 50 percent and thereby increase parking revenue by 50 percent, but it rarely works that way. Rates that seem too high are more likely to discourage return visits.

Shouldn't parking be free?

In an ideal world, there would be plenty of room to park right in front of the store you're visiting to shop, free of charge. Free parking would encourage business by bringing shoppers and diners to neighborhoods with stores and restaurants. It also would help those neighborhoods compete with the stores in the vast seas of asphalt on the edge of town, where there's parking galore.

In reality, limited space in busy and dense downtown shopping districts requires turnover that free parking tends to discourage. Nearby residents or shop owners might leave their cars taking up what could be valuable customer parking for hours, or all day, or for multiple days. Some downtowns have free parking but set a two-hour limit, though that requires either lots of staff time or lots of equipment (such as those license plate readers) to enforce.

A good compromise is for merchants to subsidize parking for customers, either with tokens or stickers as Downtown Ithaca has tried in the past, or by applying the parking cost (or part of it) to a purchase.

We strongly urge the City and Downtown Ithaca Alliance to work together promptly on a plan that will let shoppers park for free for an hour or two.

Should I park in the garages?

Sure, if they're convenient to where you're going, and you don't mind that they're more time-consuming than parallel parking. At best, you have to drive around inside the parking garage for a minute or several to get to an available space, and leaving will take a few minutes, too. 

A paystation at the Cayuga Street garage, which is privately operated by Allpro.A paystation at the Cayuga Street garage, which is privately operated by Allpro.That's one of the reasons we're not fans of an hourly rate that doesn't allow visitors to pay for part of an hour. $1 for 59 minutes but $2 for 61 minutes seems unnecessary, and especially galling if you spent ten minutes circling the Seneca Street parking ramp to get past the restricted hotel-guest spaces, and then waited in line to pay and leave.

The parking garages also charge for parking for a much longer day than the meters or paystations -- from 3am until 8pm. If you might stick around for dinner after shopping, you'll be paying for two extra hours. Folks who got used to parking in the garages and then driving out without paying after the attendants left at 8 or so will now find that the garages are staffed until 11:30pm. (No one has said so, but those new license plate scanners could also help the City catch up with people who try to get away with not paying for time in the garages by leaving in the middle of the night.)

Here, too, is an opportunity to offer free parking for those spending money in town. The first hour or two was free for everyone for a while, or free for customers of merchants who used stickers to validate parking. This summer, the City and Downtown Ithaca Alliance offered two hours of free parking with a validated receipt from a downtown business, but that ended on July 31st. It was intended to help merchants who've been suffering from the extended Commons construction, but it's still a valuable idea.

What's next?

Those poles where meters used to be are going away, according to the City, and they won't be replaced with lines delineating parking spaces. That should allow more cars to park than might fit otherwise, since the lines would have to be painted to accommodate the biggest passenger vehicles. Of course, without lines, some drivers might not do a good job of leaving room for others, as we see on blocks without specific spaces now.

Over the next year or two, more parking paystations will go up on blocks that already have one, so there's one on each side of the street, and paystations will replace meters in more areas of the City. 

The Bottom Line

We're not going to suggest parking should be just plain free. We don't think it's realistic. But the City does have an obligation to its residents and its businesses to strike a reasonable balance that encourages parking turnover in our attractive business districts without discouraging people from visiting those business districts.

Clear information is a big part of that obligation, and lots of the grumbling we've heard this month, as the paystations went online, was more about unpleasant surprises than anything else. The paystations have plastic pockets on the side for informational flyers, but we haven't seen any of the flyers yet. Keeping those available would be a good way to make sure people understand what their options are, when and why minimums and fees apply, and how they can minimize or avoid them.

Reasonable parking rates, clarity, and well-maintained parking infrastructure will help encourage area residents and visitors to explore our new downtown. The rest is up to us.

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