Parking smartly

Smartphones? We need smart cars to save downtown

Attorneys in their sunset years dream of the day when they no longer have to start a day knotting a necktie, governors of when they can complain about bills without people expecting them to know what’s in them. A certain Springfield columnist of that age dreams of never again having to write about parking downtown.

As we learned from the excellent piece on the subject by our Bruce Rushton (“Time expired?,” July 20), the City of Springfield is exploring new ways to make street parking more popular by making paying for it less painful. The city has solicited proposals from firms offering pay-by-credit card smartphone apps – finally. Other Illinois cities already offer parkers ways to park smartly. The life of the prejudice peddler being an itinerant one, I have five parking apps on my phone. (Quarters work everywhere; no one parking app does.) They are ParkChicago; Passport, which works in Peoria, Oak Park and Evanston; PayByPhone (Naperville, the University of Illinois C-U campus); MobileMeter (Champaign and Urbana); and Spothero, which I recommend to locate and reserve and prepay (often at a discount) garage spaces in Chicago. (ParkMe offers the same service for Springfield.)

Smartphone parking apps enable one to pay for metered street spaces using one’s credit card and, in some systems, to locate open street spaces. You buy as much time as you think you need; your phone reminds you of how much is left, and if you need more time, you can add it from your phone at, say, your restaurant table if you decide to linger over coffee, as happened to me the other day.

Ward 5 Ald. Andrew Proctor told Bruce that he wants to see a system in place in time for this year’s downtown holiday walks, so that merry-makers won’t have to bring change. I had no idea that carrying parking meter change was burdensome in Springfield. The city already offers visitors a prepaid Cash Key system that allows you to pay for spaces without coins, but it achieves that small convenience at the larger inconvenience of having to obtain a cash key. Anyway, how much change do you need? Downtown street spaces during the business day in Chicago cost $6.50 per hour. In Springfield, it’s 50 cents. As a friend put it to me the other day, “You put in a quarter you can stay for three weeks.”

And no matter how you pay for a space, you still have to put your car in it. Lisa Clemmons Stott, director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., told Bruce about parking downtown, “It can feel intimidating, like a bigger city.” Ah, here we get closer to the real problem. Springfield’s downtown is a bit of city surrounded by a small town. Most Springfieldians – small-towners by inclination if not by origin – are tourists in their own downtown. Parking in even a semi-crowded urban space requires skills and information that most Springfieldians never need to develop. (“Does a red meter mean that only red cars can park here?”)

There are things that might be done. Websites of downtown organizations need to offer much better parking advice to visitors, with maps showing all the options, with not only locations but opening hours and rates. For example, Downtown Springfield, Inc.’s map shows where the garages are, but does not make clear which street one enters from, which would be a kindness, considering downtown’s many one-way streets. (The parking map produced by Downtown Evanston shows how to do it; see

Of course, better information only helps if people plan their downtown visits and know how to access web pages and how to read maps and – oh to hell with it, what’s on TV? As for city hall’s parking app initiative, folks there are to be lauded for trying, but smartphone apps won’t solve the problem. The big problems with metered street spaces downtown is not that they are downtown or that they are metered but that they are on the street. Put another way, what people really find intimidating about street parking downtown is parking itself.

Parking parallel confounds a great many Illinoisans, perhaps because the ability to park parallel is not required to pass one’s driver license exam. (Illinois is among the only 14 states that don’t expect their citizens to master this basic skill.) The desperate desire to avoid parallel parking gave us White Oak Malls and all its spawn, plus new office buildings built in the near countryside, where workers don’t need to really park their cars but can simply abandon their vehicles in a great field until they’re ready to go home.

Until such time as downtown places and events can be rendered in virtual reality, making both downtown parking and downtown moot, the technology that might save downtown Springfield will not be phone-based meter payment but automated parking systems on cars. Our phones already are smarter than we are; when our cars are too I can finally write that last-ever parking column.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at

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