CHICAGO — In a few select blocks of the West Loop, Chicago Parking Meters will debut its new ParkChicago mobile payment system in a pilot test starting Tuesday.
In a small area with just 279 metered parking spaces between Halsted Street and Racine Avenue, and bordered by Madison and Monroe streets, drivers will be able to test drive the ParkChicago app to pay for their metered parking remotely using any iOS or Android smartphone.
"We're conducting a pilot to gauge feedback from motorists before rolling it out across the city," said CPM spokesman Scott Burnham. "
The technology makes paying for parking much more convenient by eliminating the need to pay for parking at the pay box and placing a receipt on the dashboard. Drivers can pay for parking or extend parking time from anywhere using a smartphone, iPad or similar tablet computer.
The app even has a built-in timer to remind drivers 10 minutes before their time expires to allow them to add more time or get back to their car before the meter expires.
"It's cool," said Kirstin Martin, the owner of Smitten Boutique, 1047 W. Madison St., who took a test drive of the app last week. "If you're out having lunch, being able to hop on and extend your time is great. It's a pain in the butt for a person to have to go out and have to pay your meter."
After downloading the app, motorists must create an account, which includes inputting credit or debit card information. Similar to the Illinois Tollway's I-PASS system, users are required to start with a minimum $20 balance, which is automatically replenished when it drops below $10, according to Burnham.
Burnham is encouraging drivers to wait to set up their ParkChicago accounts until the service is offered in the neighborhoods where they park the most.
"We recommend that people wait to sign up until you start seeing signs around the areas where they park," said Burnham.
Once set up, in order to park, drivers must type in the six-digit zone number on the closest parking meter sign and then input their license plate number.
The app will display the parking rate information for drivers and then allow them to choose the length of time they wish to park. While there's a 15-minute minimum that must be purchased using the app, additional time can be added in increments as small as one minute.
After a time is selected and the transaction is finished, a confirmation message is displayed, which can be emailed to the user. The app also gives drivers the flexibility to move their car within the allotted time and still be legally parked.
People without a smartphone can still use the service by calling 877-242-7901 and following the prompts.
There's no fee to use ParkChicago if a driver opts to pay for two hours of parking or more. However, there is a 35-cent fee for each time a driver pays less than the maximum time allowed. There is no limit on the number of times you can add time.
"If a motorist prefers not to pay the convenience fee, they can still use the pay box," explained Burnham.
A mobile payment solution has been a long time coming for Chicago. Back in 2007 the city piloted a similar program called ParkMagic, which used an in-car meter device — much like I-PASS — where drivers could bypass the meters using their phone to pay for parking.
But the ParkMagic program was put on hold in 2008 while the city ceded control of the city's 36,000 metered-parking spaces for 75 years to CPM in exchange for $1.16 billion. For unknown reasons, the meter company discontinued ParkMagic in 2011.
Mark Smithivas, an early adopter of ParkMagic is glad there's finally another mobile-payment method available in Chicago. He had enjoyed the convenience of paying for parking while at a concert or seeing a movie, but questioned why it took so long.
"Why was there such a long gap between that service and this new service?" asked Smithivas. "I travel to other cities and many of them have mobile apps already in place."
ParkChicago is a direct result and key component of the renegotiated parking meter lease that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and aides worked out with CPM a year ago.
Smithivas said he'll probably be using the new app and lamented not having the ability to pay a parking meter this way until now.
"I was at a parent-teacher conference the other night, and my car was parked a few blocks away — I had to run out and feed the meter before it expired," said Smithivas. "To do it from your seat or wherever — who doesn't want that?"
The city will use new handheld computers for parking enforcement aides that are compatible with the ParkChicago app, city Finance Department spokeswoman Kelley Quinn said.
"Aides will punch in the license plate number [on a handheld computer] of any car that doesn't have a receipt," Quinn said. "Meter payments are verified with an online tool that will tell them if the vehicle has paid."
While not giving a specific timetable, Burnham said the pilot will likely go on for a few weeks before CPM begins expanding the service citywide. He said he expects the expansion to be completed by the end of the summer.