Downtown takes parking into 21st century

By Taylor West

Downtown in the Classic City — comprised largely of curbside parking — is making it easier for people to get where they are going.

A move to make simpler by replacing the old coin meters with modernized digital IPS meters had been on the table since before Downtown Athens Parking Director Chuck Horton took the helm, but it really gained momentum last year.

“It wasn’t anything new I just brought it back up — it was just something that needed to be done,” Horton said. “The machines that were on the street were just way past their time.”

Now, finding an old school meter in downtown Athens is next to impossible, a reality that will streamline the parking process for anyone who ventures out to one of the many bars, shops or restaurants.

Athens, however, is not the first city to follow the trend of convenience through modernization with the IPS meters.

San Diego introduced 51 of the high-tech devices for a four-month trial in 2009, according to the San Diego government website. And according to the City of Berkeley website, North Berkeley, a neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., ran a pilot program with 30 of the meters in January 2010.

These new solar-powered meters, which made their way through downtown over the last couple of months, take credit and debit cards as well as the traditional pocket change.  Now those who find themselves in the historic city center can use the new meters on most streets.

Even the pay and display boxes are on their way out. Horton said it is in the works for Clayton Street and Broad Street to follow the lead of the rest of downtown and replace the boxes with the new IPS meters.

Horton said the boxes are a real problem for downtown Athens parking — just the act of having to find a box, pay, get a ticket and return to your car generates complaints.

“A lot of the folks don’t like them. It is not uncommon to have five complaints in a morning based on what happened the night before,” he said. “I just don’t get those kinds of complaints from the IPS meters.”

John McArthur, a downtown Athens attorney who works across the street from the courthouse, said he likes the new meters better than the old ones and better than the pay and display boxes.

“[The pay and display’s] are OK. I kind of like [the IPS meters] better because you don’t have to go looking for the box and print the receipt,” he said.

Scott Cassady, a retired Athenian, shares McArthur’s distaste for the pay and display meters, saying they are “a pain in the butt.”

“Whatever happened to where you just walked up and stuck your coins in and walked away?” he said. “[The IPS meters] actually look like they make sense. It’s way better than the other one.”

And on top of being a grievance for those who frequent downtown, the pay and display boxes are difficult and costly to fix when they break. Horton said Athens doesn’t have the in-house tools to fix the machines so the city has to call in people from Norcross.

The IPS meters pose much less of a problem. Horton said they break less frequently and are easier to fix and to monitor.

“It will send a message to my email if they are jammed if they are having some problems,” Horton said. “For us its easy to trouble shoot them you can switch them out pretty easy.”

In addition to the ability to pay with credit and debit cards as well as the traditional coins, users can pay for the new machines by calling in on an app and paying on the phone.

“I can pull up on their software and check the amount of money that’s coming in,” Horton said.

A given meter’s income varies by location — the area by the courthouse doesn’t get as much business until court is in session or there is an event at the Classic Center. On the other hand, Horton said the meters on Lumpkin Street, Jackson Street and S. Washington Street “really get used.”

Athens-Clarke County purchased 510 IPS meters at $465 a piece — a total of just over $230,000 — that arrived in the middle of last October. Horton said of the vote in favor of the purchase, “I think it was unanimous.

And the opinion on the amendment to the downtown landscape met with positivity from Athens’ citizens, too.

“They are well received,” Horton said. “I like them and I think the customers like them because … they can read them and it’s easy to use them. Your generation is going to use plastic; the older generation may not want to do that.”

Barbara Brown, an employee of Downtown Athens Parking, has the job of writing tickets for the vehicles which are illegally parked — whether in an off-limits parking space or with an expired meter.  She said the dual nature of the meters makes them easy to use for Athenians of all ages and backgrounds.

“They are easier for the older people and easier for the students, you know, it’s old school and new school,” she said. “Credit cards, five cents, ten cents and quarters — you can still get by with it.”

McArthur said he supports the new, high-tech meters’ downtown takeover because they are convenient and good for the price. His only complaint — “I wish they would take dollar bills too.”

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