Montgomery County Council to Vote on Pay-by-Cellphone Parking Meters

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

Nirav Thaker had just pulled his black sport-utility vehicle into a parking lot in downtown Bethesda one recent evening. He hopped out, reached into his pocket and let out a deep sigh. No quarters.

Could he make it in and out of the nearby Barnes & Noble before parking enforcement arrived and slapped a ticket on his windshield that could cost as much as $40?

In a few months, Thaker and others who come up short on change might not have to grapple with such a dilemma. Under a plan before the Montgomery County Council, instead of quarters, Bethesda parkers will be able to pay for parking with their cellphones.

If approved at the council's meeting Thursday, Montgomery would be the first jurisdiction in the D.C. area to use the system, which is in place in many European countries and U.S. cities including Coral Gables, Fla., and Decatur, Ga. Officials in San Francisco recently concluded a pilot of the program, which attracted about 10,000 mostly young and tech-savvy users, a spokesman for the city's mayor said. They plan to expand it citywide.

"We love it," said Coral Gables spokeswoman Maria Huggins. "If you haven't done it in Washington, D.C., then you need to get Obama to give us a call."

Cellphone parking is one of a growing number of services and products people can purchase using cellphones.

Mobile commerce is huge in Asia and Europe, where people can buy groceries and movie tickets with cellphones and even use them for banking. But the service has been slow to arrive in the United States

Analysts at Celent, an international research and consulting firm, estimate that worldwide mobile payments were about $24 billion in 2006, and they are expected to grow dramatically as more institutions and merchants experiment with the technology.

In San Francisco, people can use cellphones to pay fares on the area's subway system, BART. Fast-food company Jack in the Box piloted a program that allows people to buy food via cellphone.

Details of the Montgomery plan are pending, county spokeswoman Esther Bowring said, but if the program mirrors others in use, it would work like this: When drivers arrive at a designated parking space, they would call the phone number on the meter and punch in the meter number, the amount it costs to park and a credit card number.

Those who plan ahead would have the option of going to a Web site and setting up an online account. People would pay the parking fee, plus a 25-cent surcharge to use the service. People could still pay with quarters, Bowring said.

And that's not all.

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