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Smart Cards Are
A Brilliant Idea

Robert W. Bruschi
By Robert W. Bruschi
Administrator, Princeton Borough

While preparing for the construction of a new 500 car municipal parking garage in Princeton Borough staff was asked to examine the type of technology that may be appropriate within the garage. In addition to this review, the borough was about to embark upon the start of replacing of a number of its 1,200 plus parking meters. It became apparent that there were many technologies available for the operation of our garage but what we didn’t realize until into the process was that there was technology available that we could integrate for payments at our garage and our parking meters. Ladies and Gentlemen… introducing the borough Smart Card.

Woman using a smart card in a parking meter
Currently the Borough has sold over 25,000 smart cards. They total value purchased is approximately $3 million dollars in prepaid parking. Of that value approximately $2.7 million has actually been used—leaving a balance of nearly $300K in the Borough’s bank to ultimately be used for parking.

The Smart Card is called several other things around the country but simply put it is a prepaid “debit card” that operates from an embedded computer chip. We wanted the public to understand that owning a card is a smart thing to do. The owner of the Smart Card can purchase up to $50 dollars worth of parking on the card. The first smart reason to own a card is that the Borough offers a 10 percent incentive for using the card. If you purchase $50 dollars on your existing card you will be credited for $55 dollars, with the same incentive available for any denomination of purchase you make.

The incentive was implemented to encourage the use of the Smart Card but also to encourage the reuse of the existing card as each individual card carries a cost with it that should be mitigated by reusing the card. The Borough also limited the dollar value to be placed on the card so as to limit the potential liability of lost cards.

What initially sold us on the Smart Card technology was the constant concern of those that park in Princeton; that you needed to have a piggy bank full of change in which to have sufficient money for the meter. At the time, two hours of parking required 8 quarters, 20 dimes or 40 nickels (or some combination of these). If you were to root through your cup holder, ash tray, glove box and seats you might be able to come up with the correct change the first time but it would be difficult to come up with that much change on a routine basis. This, coupled with the burden continually placed on the merchant and restaurant owners to provide change, made the Smart Card choice even easier.

Smart reason number two—if you return to a meter that you have put Smart Card dollars into you can recapture the balance of money remaining on the meter. Yes, you read this right! The card owner simply puts the card back into the meter and the amount not used is credited back to the card. This has a residual smart benefit in that it allows parkers to put in the maximum amount in a meter and reduce the possibility of getting an overtime parking ticket. By the way, the meter and card are smart enough to remember your chip and will reject your attempt to obtain a refund from a meter other than one you have just put parking money into.

Smart reason number three—when you use the card in the municipal garage you bypass all of the normal ticket taking procedures. From your car, you simply insert the Smart Card into the machine as you enter and again as you leave. It debits the card only for the parking time that you use. If you are in and out in less than 30 minutes then you don’t pay at all. Now that is a Smart Card!

From the borough’s perspective this has also been a smart investment. We have been able to sell Smart Cards in volume to businesses in town. One such business, a regional realtor based in town, regularly purchases Smart Cards for their agents who are in and out of the office frequently. This has saved them time and money.

Other smart local businesses have purchased Smart Cards as giveaways for their employees and for patrons of their stores. In addition, individuals have purchased Smart Cards for birthday and holiday gifts in the same manner as a store gift card. We had never considered that parking would be considered a gift, but it is and we are happy about it.

One last reason the Smart Card has been a smart choice is from an operations standpoint. When staff is collecting change from meters, the use of a Smart Card can cut back significantly on the number of times you must make those collections. The borough went to larger vaults on the meters and together with the Smart Cards we cut down collection from meters in our central business district to every other day. The schedule has been reduced significantly and has helped in curtailing meters that jam because of bad coins or bad weather. We found that when we made payment for parking easier, people were less likely to resort to any extreme when they came up short on coins (the inset picture of the quarter that has a very thin wire attached to it is an example, this was used to fish the quarter back out of the meter once it registered—just one of many examples of American ingenuity we’ve experienced). The Smart Card technology has been easier on the consumer, the staff and our pocketbooks.

Currently the Borough has sold over 25,000 Smart Cards. They total value purchased is approximately $3 million dollars in prepaid parking. Of that value approximately $2.7 million has actually been used—leaving a balance of nearly $300K in the Borough’s bank to ultimately be used for parking.

We must mention there are some shortcomings to the Smart Card. If you do drop it, leave it in a meter or otherwise misplace it there is a value to whoever finds it—so it does have a “cash value” to pay for parking.

The Borough has re-invented the Smart Card three times. We have modified the design of the card and have remarketed the card to the community and local business. This was done with a purpose in mind and that purpose is to remind people that you can make a smarter choice in how to spend your money on parking in Princeton. We found that many communities do this more often to give the card a theme. There are also advertising opportunities on the card that we believe have a potential economic benefit to the borough.

parking meter with quarter attached to a wire so it can be pulled out
We found that when we made payment for parking easier, people were less likely to resort to any extreme when they came up short on coins. This photo shows a quarter that has a very thin wire attached to it. It was used to fish the quarter back out of the meter once it registered—just one of many examples of American ingenuity we’ve experienced.

The field of parking and paying for parking is like every other technology available today. It is constantly changing and moving in different directions. We are in the process of evaluating some of these new technology choices at our municipal parking garage. The critical element for us is making sure that the current Smart Card technology continues to work as an integrated feature in both the meters and the garage, as well as not preclude us from making other choices to modify technology again in the future. To date we have had no regrets in moving in this direction. It has proven to be a very beneficial tool in the entire management of parking in our town.

So does the Smart Card make sense for every town? Maybe not—but it certainly should be examined as a choice of technology if and when a community is about to purchase new meters, make a major technology change in garage operations or have any type of dramatic modification in rate structure. The need is further solidified when the town has regular users and isn’t necessarily just a tourist area where people come once a year. The saving and convenience are there for those who would be able to take advantage of the frequency of use—and clearly the town benefits from the frequent use of the card.

 
You didn’t need to be Albert Einstein to understand that the Smart Card was a smart move.



First published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 4, April 2011

 

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