Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Calling the One-Legged Bandit

My adopted home town is in the forefront of modern technology.

Here’s a new reason to keep your cellphone charged:

Parking in Coral Gables, home to 4,573 parking meters, has been made easier by the introduction this month of a park-and-pay-by-cellphone service — touted as the first of its kind in the country.

That’s right: Pay by phone. You pull up, dial a number, punch in a few keys and walk away without a worry. The meter won’t expire until you call again to log off.

”You can do that? Wow,” said an approving Kamran Saraf, a 25-year-old medical student at the University of Miami. He had already dropped a quarter in the lot behind the post office on Miracle Mile but subscribed to the service when he returned and was told about it by a Herald reporter.

It took him six-and-a-half minutes to enter his credit card, e-mail, license plate and telephone number.

”It’s pretty cool,” Saraf said, having a V8 moment and regretting the fortune he might have made had he invented this service. ‘I actually thought of that a while ago, `Why don’t they let you pay by phone?’ ”

A subscriber’s phone will even ring when the maximum time for the meter is about to pass — and then the time can be extended without having to leave a meeting or interrupt shopping to feed more coins into the meter.

Mari Molina, the executive director of the Gables Business Improvement District, is thrilled to see something alleviate the one thing that keeps coming up as a deterrent for downtown shoppers: parking.

”It’s innovative,” Molina said. “People come down and they start meandering and they forget about their parking meters, and we certainly don’t want them to get parking tickets.”

Which raises a question: Won’t the city lose revenue in having fewer violators?

”There could be some minor impact to the number of parking tickets we issue, but I think the service to the public far outweighs that,” said William Carlson, the city’s parking director.

The program has been offered in Europe and Canada, he added, but this is the first time it has been offered in a U.S. city.

Ironically, one of the biggest traffic hazards in Coral Gables is drivers who nearly run over pedestrians because they are too busy yakking on their cellphones in their behemoth SUV’s to watch where they are going.