Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Parking Predicament

The City of Montreal’s new electronic parking meter system leaves this commuter longing for the good old days.

Product Review: “Payez Partez” (Pay’n’Go) Electronic Parking Meters

In case you didn’t know, the days of the old clink-clunk-turn mechanical parking meters are coming to an end. In most urban areas, the traditional glass-domed metal meters are being phased out for newer computerized systems consisting of electronic paying posts and indexed parking spots.

I was actually excited a few years back when the City of Montreal announced it was going to test out a new parking meter system on a few downtown blocks. Finally, in this computer age the city that still has mechanically-timed traffic lights was boldly taking a technological step forward. I had read up on the system’s promotional info and had my hopes high at first. However, now after years of tinkering and putting up with this inconvenient and at times frustratingly ridiculous system, I’ve had enough and believe that I am ready to voice my opinion.

Like a plague, it’s spreading! This electronic parking system with its centralized electronic pay booth has recently moved from its downtown testbed into Montreal suburbs such as Lachine.

Product Overview:

The “Payez Partez” parking meter system works as follows:

The traditional on-the-spot mechanical meter that used to grace the sidewalk in front of the allocated parking space is gone. In its place is a plastic paddle ID board indicating an alphanumeric parking spot designation (letters are usually related to the zone, while the numbers increase in order down the street).

If I had to designate the name of my parking spot, I’d call it “Larry”.

Payments are made by entering the parking space designation in a common, centralized parking payment post located nearby the parking spots. The post is much larger than the old-style meters; it has an LCD screen, keypad and accepts various payment methods. It can be used to pay for any parking spot within about four letter zones, and there are usually about 3 or 4 posts located per average-length street block.

Electronic paying post: always closeby to take your money.

The advantages for this system are mostly touted as a great cost reduction for the operating entities (i.e. municipality). First, the plethora of old mechanical parking meters that would break, jam and require servicing are now replaced by a few-or-no moving parts system that requires little maintenance. Second, the centralized payment posts mean there are fewer and faster money pick-ups, as the meter maids don’t need to walk up to every single parking spot and empty individual banks as before. Third, changes in parking rates can be accomplished much more easily, as the price per hour can be instantly updated in the computerized system as compared to the mechanical re-calibration of every single parking meter in the legacy system. Finally, the electronic system makes life easier for traffic ticket issuers, as meters that are in violation can be browsed electronically by traffic officers.

The advantage for the consumer is somewhat muted in comparison. The big positives are the ability to pay electronically (no more fumbling and bumbling for change, just use your credit card) and the fact that the meter is intelligent enough to not accept money after hours (not too bad of a feature as I’ve accidentally loaded up meters on Sundays out of habit in the past). One last major upside is that the meter can be paid or refilled remotely, i.e. from locations that are blocks away from your parking spot, as long as you remember your parking spot designation and provided that there is a payment post nearby.

While the system may look good as described on paper, there are several flaws and major inconveniences for the end user. For the purpose of this review, I’ll overlook the parking price (as it varies and most people complain that it is too expensive) and focus only on the technology at hand.


So you’ve parked your car at one of these new meters. Now what?

Time to play the memory game! Now don’t get distracted on your walk to pay.

When you get out of your vehicle, it’s important to memorize the space number so that you can remember it when you walk up to the centralized paying booth. The post is usually nearby, so you’re looking at loading that alphanumeric jingle into your short term memory for about 30 seconds if you’re a fast walker, or a few minutes if you’re down the street and there’s a line-up to pay. Now here comes my first little nit-picky complaint: sure it’s no problem to remember the series of letters and numbers when you’re alone, but try recalling it when you’re with your buddies or if you have a child with you. I can say that the combination of chatting with someone on your cellphone and a line-up at the paying post has spelt disaster for me a few times already as I’ve often gone back to my space just to make sure it was B347 and not B348. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, but if people were putting money in the wrong meters when they used to be right in front of the spot, then what’s happening now? I’m also curious how well the elderly or people with Alzheimer’s are handling this impromptu short term memory test.

Could the LCD screen be any smaller? It looks like someone glued a cheap calculator display on an oversized mailbox.

Once you’re at the centralized paying booth, you have the option to do your transaction in English instead of the default French. The user interface is quite poor; the buttons are fine but the monochrome LCD screen is tiny in comparison to this gigantic column - I’ve seen more lines of text and character capacity on a 6-year old cellphone. The screen displays the parking rate and tells you how much time you have paid as you start adding money. Now for the first time payment can be made by methods other than pocket change as the paying booth accepts credit cards or other electronic payment services, meaning no more running into the nearest store to break a twenty by buying a pack of gum when you’re short. Once you’ve filled up the right amount, you lock in and print your receipt.

A print-out with your parking spot number, time and money deposited is rendered after every transaction. No need to put it on your dash but I recommend hanging on to it.

A frustrating feature (or lack thereof) has to be the fact that the current time is not posted before paying. I’m not being ticketed based on my watch time, so why shouldn’t I be able to see what the exact “official parking meter billing time” is? The reason I’m so discouraged with this is:

1) it is something that would have been so easy to add to the display as the post already has an internal clock

2) for situations when you’re paying to the last hour of metered parking, every minute counts

For example, it’s happened where I’ve loaded up the meter only to find that I’m short by 4-5 minutes, leaving my car in the red for a brief period. Then the conundrum: do I risk a $48 ticket or do I just put in another quarter? Ideally, if I had known that I was a few minutes short, I would have waited it out before paying and then loaded the meter once I saw I could fill it to the maximum. True, I can cancel my transaction after finding out, synchronize my watch to “parking time” and then wait it out... but why all these extra hassles for something so simple? Chances are in the end that I won’t bother to fight the system and eat the loss. Now take this scenario and multiply it by a bunch of people per day over the years and you have a lot of average consumers shelling out money because of someone’s bad interface design.

Another thing that I absolutely detest about this new system is that you are unable to top off the meter. That’s right out-of-towners: you cannot add any money to your electronic meter without automatically (and inadvertently) resetting the existing balance to zero. I see several problems with this besides the obvious inconvenience:

1) Remember when you used to luck out and catch someone leaving a spot, then as a bonus find out they had left 20 minutes on the meter? Well no more. The guy before you could have left a full two hours and you would have absolutely no idea. And as soon as you punch in the number and start dropping in your quarters, his money is lost into the parking abyss and you’re starting from scratch.

2) Back to the memory game with this scenario: you load up your meter for 2 hours and walk away. Two minutes later another commuter coming in for a quick pick-up parks his car and loads the meter for 10 minutes, but realizes only after printing his ticket that he’s accidentally paid for your spot instead of his. Guess what? Your 2 hours of paid parking have just disappeared and are replaced by a measly 10 minutes, and unless the stranger decides out of the kindness of the heart to fill you up to make up for his boo-boo, you’re on your way to a nice surprise waiting for you tucked underneath your wiper. Even if you somehow managed to keep your tiny receipt, you can expect the inconvenience of taking a day off work to contest your ticket. Nice.

3) The pure annoyance factor. With most meters capped at 2 hours, good luck topping off your meter in between dinner and a movie, or before a 3 hour exam. In order to avoid paying for nothing, I’ve had to estimate my schedule down to the minute when grabbing a bite to eat before taking in a hockey game, and once too often either had to run outside in the middle of my meal to add some more money (took longer to eat than I expected) or stand around at the meter waiting for my previous payment to expire before adding more (took faster to eat than expected). So much for convenience.

4) Now the Average Joe paranoia factor: imagine you drive a big, hefty SUV and park near a university where a bunch of modern day hippies see you load up that meter with every bit of spare change. If any of these environmental activists decide to drop a coin (note how the website below says ALL Canadian coins accepted), they can punish your polluting ways for only pocket change with what will surely be a parking ticket. In theory, a malicious someone could probably reset a whole block for less than the price of a double-mocha-choka latte. Even if you kept your receipt to prove you paid, have fun wasting your time to contest the ticket. Perhaps there was a reason the old meters were designed to be top-up-only after all.

Seriously … would it have been so difficult to create an interface that would allow people to be able to check the existing balance on the meter and add to it? I find it hard to believe anyone could be so incompetent to design a system so stupid (pardon my language) that I’m convinced this is a pure money-grabbing move. Think of all the extra dollars being lost as consumers pay for parking in the same spot twice, or maybe even three times over. What a joke.

Despite the fact that you can’t top off your meter, the end user at least has the benefit of using other nearby parking posts to refill when their time is up. While not having to run back to your meter is a good thing, not all posts serve the same parking area. Again, the question here is: “why limit this feature?”

Each meter’s keypad can only select from four alphabetic zones. I’m curious if there is a reason for this or if it’s like that because they only designed a keypad with four buttons. Either way, make sure you stay within a few blocks, or you may run outside your meter zone. No filling up from across town, that’s for sure.

Now anyone can take a system and criticize it, and I know what most of you trigger-happy e-mailers are thinking right now: OK Average Joe, since you’re so smart, what would you have done… stayed with the mechanical system?

Not at all. Here are my humble suggestions to take this disaster and turn it around into something a bit more consumer-friendly.

Suggestions on How to make it Better:

Let’s begin with the user interface on the payment post. First of all, the 2 line LCD has to go. I’ve been in bathrooms with graffiti-proof 7 inch LCD terminals over the urinals, so isn’t there a way to equip these posts with something a bit more interface-flexible and generally more attractive?

Was two lines of monochrome text really the best they could do?

My suggestion would be to go with a nice colour LCD screen that would always display the official time, giving average commuters the information they need right when they walk up. Next, the first screen would display a simple graphical layout of the street and parking spaces, taking away some of the confusion from the memory game mentioned above (“Oh that’s right, I parked second spot from the corner”). Then, once the parking space number is punched in, the time remaining would be displayed and the user would be able to top up the meter and print his ticket.

So far so good for Average Joe?

The LCD screen can even be taken a step further by selling advertising on the screen to generate funds for the city. Imagine the potential of knowing that whoever is accessing the post is: a) a vehicle driver / owner and b) currently in a specific area. This opens the possibility for ads about car washes, body shops and insurance companies, or for a local restaurant to flash its lunchtime special to people parking within a two-block radius between 11:30 and 1:00.

These meters have prime location and a guaranteed audience… so why not use?

I wouldn’t go as far as turning the payment booth into an all-out tourist-type information post unless a second screen was added on the opposite side. Last thing I need when I’m in a rush to pay for parking and move on is to get in line behind some slowpoke browsing the map for the closest exchange bureau. Touch screens would probably be more prone to breaking down or being vandalized, so I won’t even suggest to go that fancy.

Next, I suggest adding more convenient locations for the payment posts. The outdoor street distribution is fine, but why not add more posts indoors at popular locations? Imagine topping off your meter from inside a downtown movie theatre before going in line for popcorn. Also, wouldn’t the owners of the Eaton Center love to have people go to the middle of the food court to add more money to stay and shop rather than head for the doors to pay outside (and probably not come back)? I personally would like to be able to pay my meter or check how much time I have left from inside the convention center during the car show instead of going into the cold and snow outside. Renting or leasing indoor payment posts to downtown commercial property owners could generate serious revenue for the city while being a definite plus to the average consumer.

Why should I have to go outside in the cold and the rain to put more money in the meter? Places like the downtown Eaton Centre would only benefit from having a paying post deep inside while providing a nice service to shoppers. Photo courtesy of Ivanhoe-Cambridge.

In terms of price, the parking rate system is dynamic and easy to change. Therefore, why not have different rates for the weekend than for weekdays? Or, since electronic payment is allowed, how about giving hybrid, small engine or electric car owners a yearly renewable card that they could swipe in the machine to get a discount before paying? I find this would be far more effective in helping the environment than the “take public transit at all cost” message people don’t seem entirely convinced of.

I believe the above suggestions are reasonable fixes that can turn the electronic parking system into a real winner. If we take this one step further, we can also look at future developments that might be appealing for the end users.

For example, the current electronic system is linked wirelessly to the traffic wardens to let them know which meters have expired. It would be interesting if this information was made available to the general public.

In this age of Palm Pilots, GPS displays in cars, wireless internet and Google maps, the parking system could be linked in to allow people to browse a map of nearby streets and see if there any spots available (i.e. not paid). While a spot that is past payment might not necessarily be free, this data it is a good start when planning which street to turn up as well as giving people a rough idea of the parking situation and whether it’s worth taking the car downtown or if they’d be better off with public transit or cab.

If we throw cellphones into the mix, it could get exciting if carrier companies get in on the action too. Imagine paying your meter and then text messaging your parking number to your carrier. The carrier could then link into the system with your parking spot number and keep you up to date on the time left, send you a reminder when you’re down to your last 5 minutes, or maybe even give you the option to text back a monetary amount to top off the meter remotely (billed to your cellphone invoice for what I assume would be an additional monthly charge).

Topping off my meter from my cellphone while sitting in a movie theatre may be wishful thinking today, but this is an indication of the full potential of a souped-up Pay’n’Go system.

Ready to vote me for mayor?

Final Verdict:

Is this system as bad as I’ve made it sound? Yes, yes and YES. I’ve tried my best to give it a grace period, I’ve remained patient and impartial and hoped for a massive upgrade before the system spread, but alas … it seems too late. Montreal commuters are now stuck with a parking system that gives one set of small benefits while taking away the basic needs of the end user. Overall, this is very disappointing for a system that could have been so much more.

The only positive that I can add in is that the monstrous paying booth works off solar power (with a hardwired backup I assume). While this may be a good step forward in helping the planet’s environment, I believe the system is more effective at helping Mother Earth by frustrating commuters to the point they will just leave their cars at home.

It may be a bad system, but at least it’s an environmentally friendly, solar-powered bad system.

Reaction from other users has been similar, and most seemed to like my suggestions, which shows this system leaves people wanting better. One ray of light is that I’ve heard that some good Samaritans have actually started leaving their parking receipts in the little crack of the parking spot ID panel to show the next person coming that there’s still some time left on the meter. I guess good will always does show up when it counts, and I definitely recommend this procedure to anyone else that would like to balance the scales.


• Multiple payment methods available
• Able to pay blocks away from your parking spot
• Printable receipt for tax deductions (OK that’s a long shot but the list was too short)


• User is not able to see how much money was left on the meter
• User is not able to add to his paid amount
• Very limited features
• Bare bones interface is too bare
• Several easy ways for others to make mistakes that inconvenience the user
• The entire system is outdoors

In conclusion, parking is a necessary evil, but it looks like we’re on what was an avoidable road to getting a raw deal. It is inexcusable for consumers to pay and repay for the same parking spot over and over, as well as being burdened with a system that is devoid of features to the point where you long for the old mechanical system.

Average Joe’s Product Rating: 1 / 10

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Stationnement de Montreal