Wichner: Pilot program tests smartphone payment for meter parking

2013-09-10T00:05:00Z 2013-09-10T20:53:32Z Wichner: Pilot program tests smartphone payment for meter parkingDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Out of change for the parking meter? Ever had to dash out to feed an expiring parking meter?

Now you can use a smartphone to pay for meter parking or even add time remotely, for a small fee, at five locations in downtown Tucson and around the University of Arizona campus.

The meters are part of a pilot program by the city of Tucson and Park Genius, a tech startup founded by three UA grads.

About 220 meters are part of the Park Genius system for the three-month trial, which began Aug. 5, said Thomas Maguire, co-founder and chief financial officer of Park Genius LLC.

To start off, users download the free Park Genius smartphone app, which is available on the Apple App Store and Google Play, and register for the service.

At a Park Genius-designated meter, users call up the app on a smartphone or any Web-enabled device and enter the meter’s unique parking spot number and credit- or debit-card payment information. The company charges a 35-cent convenience fee for each transaction, using Authorize.net, a major electronic-payments service, to process payments, Maguire said.

Payment confirmation is sent immediately, and parking-enforcement officers are notified electronically via their hand-held devices.

Users also are sent text-message reminders five minutes before their paid parking sessions expire — with an option to add more time with their smartphones.

Electronic parking meters that allow credit- or debit-card payments have been around for years, and systems allowing motorists to pay via smartphone have been rolled out in hundreds of cities.

Big players include PayByPhone, which is part of electronic-payments provider PayPoint. The PayByPhone service is offered as an option to card payments compatible with electronic payment meters — including the kiosk-based system installed about two years ago on the UA campus.

But Park Genius differs in one fundamental way: The system is designed to be used with traditional, coin-operated parking meters.

That means time left on the meter is not displayed, so even if you’ve paid, the meter will read “expired” — something that’s disclosed to users.

“After you pay using the app, the meter itself will still say ‘expired,’ but the enforcement agents all have hand-held devices and they’re notified,” Maguire said, adding that nobody has been ticketed in error so far.

Though the lack of an updated time readout may be disconcerting to some users, it’s a major selling point of Park Genius.

Since Park Genius is designed to work with traditional coin-operated meters, cities and other parking authorities can offer the service on existing meters without upgrading to expensive electronic-payment parking meters.

“We’re trying to give the city a mobile option without purchasing all this expensive hardware,” said Maguire, who launched the company last year with fellow UA alumni Ross Shanken and Austin Weiss.

The trio didn’t know each other — Maguire is from Chicago, Shanken from San Francisco and Weiss from Miami — but they met as students in the McGuire Entrepreneurship Program at the UA Eller College of Management. As part of the program’s final project, McGuire students team up to write business plans, and the Park Genius partners came up with the idea of a parking-payment app as a solution to the common problem of paying for parking.

“We found the problem of having to run back and add coins into a meter, and we formulated the solution and came up with the app,” Maguire said.

As they found other mobile-payment providers that rely on electronic meters, the Park Genius partners decided to initially focus on a system that would allow payment for old, “dumb” meters, Maguire said.

The startup company hired an app developer and attracted a small amount of funding from a local investment group, Arch Partners. In August 2012, in cooperation with the UA, Park Genius set up the system on 33 meters in a parking lot near University Boulevard and Tyndall Avenue, Maguire said.

The company has registered nearly 1,000 people, including 500 since the city pilot started, Maguire said.

Donovan Durband, administrator of the city’s ParkWise division, said the city was approached by Park Genius to try out the system, and it seemed like a good opportunity to try out electronic payments and help local entrepreneurs at the same time.

Over the next couple of years, the city plans to replace its old coin-operated meters with electronic meters that will accept payment cards as well as smartphone payments through services like PayByPhone and perhaps Park Genius, Durband said.

“It’s a good trial for us and for them (Park Genius), so far,” said Durband, who noted that the pilot isn’t costing the city a dime. “Even though it’s a small scale, it helps get our customers ready for it (electronic payment) and get our staff ready.”

Feedback has been positive, but the Park Genius pilot likely won’t be extended, Durband said, because the city expects to issue a request for proposals for a new meter system by year-end.

Maguire believes many cities and other parking jurisdictions would be interested in using Park Genius because there is no cost on their end, and the system works with existing coin-operated meters.

The company is in talks with other cities to use Park Genius, Maguire said.

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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