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Parking meter headaches? There's an app for that

More cities are turning to handheld devices and smartphone apps to make it easier for you to feed the parking meter.

Paying for parking is a lot like sitting in traffic. Iit's a regular part of city living, which means we end up hauling around rolls of quarters, or standing in line at the kiosk to pay. And there's always the risk of getting a ticket when your meter runs out.

But what if there was a way to skip the meter, altogether? Some cities are testing new technology that could make it so.

Portsmouth, N.H., is one of those charming New England towns where the busy central square is lined with bookstores, boutiques and coffee shops -- the kinds of places where you like to lose yourself for a while.

It’s also lined with parking spaces and hungry meters, and the city’s parking enforcement officers write an average 170 tickets a day. The town has parking kiosks that take credit cards, but drivers here have another option aimed at saving them time, money and stress.

For $20, they can buy a wireless device the size of a credit card. It's called an EasyPark. It works kind of like a stopwatch to track how long a car is parked in a space, then charges the driver for only that time.

“For the person using the device, they come, they park, they walk away,” says Tom Cocchiaro, Portsmouth’s head of parking operations. “They don’t have to worry about putting tickets in their windshield or worry about how much time they need to buy.”

Drivers pre-pay for parking online, so the money goes straight into the city’s bank account, leaving fewer coins to collect. Local laws still apply -- if there’s a two-hour limit on a space you still have to move in that time. But taking meters out of the equation means you can let that lunch meeting go longer than you planned without worrying you’ll get a ticket.

Across the country, more cities are testing technology like this alongside traditional parking meters, to see which method prevails. Another way to pay that’s catching on is the free smartphone app; there’s one called Parkmobile that’s available in 32 states.

The company’s V.P. of business development, Laurens Eckelboom*, says pay-by-phone technology suits a lot of Americans’ new habits.

“We don’t have a lot of cash with us, and the increase in popularity of smartphones in the United States... there is a huge change and shift in behavior of people,” Eckelboom explains.

Washington, D.C., signed on to Parkmobile two years ago and the District now gets more than 40 percent of its parking revenue through the app.

“The beauty of the system is you can remotely extend your transaction,” says Eckelboom.

In other words, you can add money to your meter without giving up the cozy chair at Starbucks. Parkmobile says it has over a million users and adds more than 50,000 new members each month.

The company banks a 35-cent fee per transaction, and there’s a monthly membership fee for the EasyPark system Portsmouth uses, so there’s big profit potential for the products that win drivers over.

“There’s lots of competition for the best way to charge people for parking,” says Donald Shoup, who teaches urban planning at UCLA. Shoup says high-tech parking payment systems are widespread in Europe, but Americans are just catching on.

“The manufacturers tell me it’s a nightmare selling anything to cities in the United States,” Shoup explains. “They’re so cautious and they seem to be afraid the customers won’t accept it or understand it, but it is changing.”

Shoup says the latest technology is making life easier, even for drivers who don’t have it. Some cities are collecting data from parking apps and wireless devices to find ways to free up more spaces for everyone.

*CORRECTION: The original version of this story misspelled Laurens Eckelboom's name.  The text has been corrected.

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