KIOSKS: PUNCHED, TWEAKED AND ACCEPTED?

Parking lot greeter Nicholas Wilk instructs a visitor on using a pay station in the English Plaza lot. Below, a screen menu shows that half-hour parking is not an option. Some users complain the ordering of options is counterintuitive. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

A backwards time-selection menu. The elimination of half-hour parking. Machines that spit out dollar bills, or don’t alert visitors who’ve opted for text messages to let them know their time is about to expire.

At least three visitors have had their credit cards “eaten” by slots meant for the insertion of paper currency.

Frustrating? Already, one user has kicked or punched a machine, setting off an alarm.

Still, as Red Bank winds down week two of its partial switchover from traditional parking meters to new solar-powered, centralized and computerized pay stations, borough officials say many problems have been worked out, and others are being addressed as they arise.

Just as importantly, parkers are finding that their second and subsequent interactions with the technology goes a lot more smoothly than the first, said parking utility director Gary Watson.

“The biggest issue we’ve seen is that the patrons are not taking their time to read” the first time they used the machines, Watson told redbankgreen in an interview. “They’ll put the money in before the machine is ready to take it, and so it kicks it back out. So now we have a problem: ‘It’s not taking my money.'”

Eventually, though, and sometimes with the help of “greeters” hired to aid in the transition, users get the hang of the system, which takes coins, dollar bills, credit cards and borough-issued Smart Cards, said Bill Wilk, a retired New Jersey State Trooper who was hired by the parking division a year ago to manage day-to-day operations and perform community relations with visitors and store owners to reduce the incidence of ticketing.

“They see it’s a four-step process, and they say, ‘this ain’t so bad,'” said Wilk. “Of course, at first, they’re a little confused, but once they follow the instructions, they get it.”

“We think it’s working well,”  said Watson, “and we are ironing issues as they arise.”

Seven green-vested greeters spent the past two weeks acquainting visitors with the 14 machines in the White Street and English Plaza lots, at Maple Cove, Marine Park and at the corner of Wharf Street and Union Avenue. And their presence has been appreciated by visitors, Wilk said.

“We didn’t just leave them stranded to figure it out on their own,” Wilk said of visitors.

“I’m getting the most positive feedback, and this is the truth, from senior citizens going to the movie theater” on White Street, Wilk said. He assumed they’d be set in their ways and resistant to the conversion, but they’ve been relieved they can use their credit cards and “don’t have to fiddle around for change. That’s been an unexpected positive,” he said of the response.

Still, there are gripes about system features that may never be satisfied. Foremost among those heard on the street by redbankgreen: the elimination of half-hour parking.

Instead of being able to pay 25 cents for a half-hour, as with the traditional meters, visitors must now pay 50 cents for an hour, with no refunds for unused time available.

Why the increase in minimum time?

“One of the issues that we’re trying to avoid is people getting summonses,” said Watson. “That’s the biggest complaint we hear all year: $38 tickets.”

Watson and Wilk said that in setting up the new system, they had in mind the person who runs into a store thinking he or she might be able to pick up a sandwich and return in plenty of time to avoid a ticket, but instead gets held up waiting in line, or pops into a second store, and returns to find a shiny slip of paper tucked under a windshield wiper.

“What’s the better option, a quarter, or a $38 ticket?” Watson asked.

“It should ease their minds,” said Wilk. If they’re covered for an hour, “there’s absolutely no chance of that happening.”

But half-hour parking has been and remains available in the East Side lots, as well as at curbside on the street, where the rates are double those of the lots. Isn’t forcing users who are accustomed to half-hour parking to buy an hour effectively, if not literally, a rate increase?

“If you feel that’s a rate increase, and you go 31 minutes and get a $38 summons – I would rather, honest to god, have the peace of mind that I’m not getting that $38 ticket,” said Wilk.

[Mayor Pasquale Menna, though, said that the matter is not resolved. After the June 27 borough council meeting, three days into the switchover, Menna acknowledged that he was unaware that half-hour parking had been eliminated. He told redbankgreen several days later that, while he understands and appreciates Watson’s thinking on the matter, the decision of whether or not to keep half-hour option is the governing body’s.]

Another complaint: The kiosks do not give refunds or credits for unused time, even for users of borough-issued Smart Cards, who can obtain refunds at the old-style meters. Why?

“Their machine just doesn’t do it,” Wilk said of the system vendor, Integrated Technical Systems of Wallingford, Connecticut.

Can’t it be adapted into this system?

In setting up the system, “The company was guiding us, and if we make changes, it creates a lot of other problems for us to operate the system,” Watson said. “They said that in towns where they [allow cash refunds], people begin using the kiosks as ATMs for change, which means a lot more maintenance for us.”

“The machine just does not return the time. That’s the only answer I can give you,” Wilk said.

Another gripe: The time selection menu is the reverse order of common sense, some users say. Instead of offering one hour as option one and four hours as option four, the computer shows option one as four hours, option two as three hours and so on.

Wilk said the ordering was chosen to make it easier for the lots’ most frequent users.

“Most of the people parking in the lots are employees, so their first intuitive is to hit ‘1,’  because they’re staying the longest and they know they have to renew after four hours so they don’t receive a summons,” said Wilk. “So we thought, and I agreed, let’s give them choice number one as four hours and go down.”

“A parking lot is more designed for longer-term parking,” said Watson.

Wilk and Watson are also working on making sure parkers who opt for cellphone text alerts get them.

How about weather protection? Given that it takes longer to complete a kiosk transaction than to put coins or a Smart Card into a meter, and that visitors often have to line up at central stations to pay for parking, are shelters in the works?

“I can’t say that there will be shelters, but we are looking at that,” Watson said, adding that in siting the kiosks, the prospect of adding shelters at a later date was a consideration.

Long-term, the plan is to see how effective the system is, and if it meets the needs of the borough and the merchants and their patrons, to possibly roll it out to the East Side lots, Watson said.

Meantime, Wilk said, the aim is to acquaint users with the system so that using it becomes second nature.

“They’re quite expensive machines, and so we’d like to keep them from getting punched,” he said.