Baltimore company sees future in parking by smartphone

In a perfect world, there's a parking space next to your destination and it's free.

For an imperfect world where parking is scarce and must be paid for, there's Dani Shavit, who wants to turn your mobile phone into a parking lot cashier's window.

Shavit holds the U.S. license for Pango, an app-driven mobile parking service that is big in Israel and Europe but just getting started here. Since opening its headquarters in Baltimore last year, Pango Shyyny USA LLC has signed deals with Latrobe, Pa.; a private garage in the heart of New York City; and CityScape, a retail and office complex with 2,500 spaces in Phoenix.

"We believe that this device is going to be your wallet," said Shavit, holding up his smartphone. "We don't know if it's three years or five years or 10 years. Revolutions take time."

With Pango technology, smartphone owners can download the app and register their vehicle, license plate and credit card information. After parking, a customer hits a button on the screen that starts a virtual parking meter. When the customer returns and hits the stop button, the transaction is charged to the credit card. An online itemized bill is sent monthly just like E-ZPass, Shavit said.

In parking zones where meter feeding is permitted, Pango texts a customer 15 minutes before time expires as a reminder to move or add money. The service also sends an automatic alert when a meter reader checks to see if time has expired.

Cellphone users can access the same service by texting or calling a toll-free number.

A survey of the parking industry this year by the International Parking Institute identified demand for cashless or electronic payment as the top issue for the business.

"Customers want convenience and reliability, and we are able to deliver that through technology like pay-by-phone," said Casey Jones, the institute's chairman. "Pay-by-phone is not likely to take over payment options, but it broadens our ability to deliver service and give customers options."

Latrobe, a city of about 9,000 east of Pittsburgh, recently finished its first month using Pango. City Manager Alexander Graziani said the community is "very happy" with the service.

"We were hoping to find a way to introduce customer friendliness through technology without adding a ton of cost to the system," Graziani said. "A lot of parking options are very equipment-oriented, and the rate of return on the investment would be hard to capture in a market as small as ours."

Latrobe signed a two-year contract with Pango for pay-by-phone services at 650 parking spaces along streets and in lots. Pango keeps 17 percent of parking fees, and the rest goes to the city. Drivers still have the option of paying with cash.

"It's exciting to hear the converts as people use it and realize what a convenience it is over having coins in the car," Graziani said.

In a nation of about 5 million parking meters, Pango is not alone in the pay-for-space race.

The Ravens have signed a deal with ParkWhiz, based in Chicago, allowing fans to shop for and buy game-day parking. The website lists garages and lots with prices based on walking distance, on-site security and whether the parking is covered.

The online service Parking Panda provides pre-paid daily or monthly access to garages and lots from the Inner Harbor to Towson.

Also vying for a piece of the pie are four direct competitors with apps, including Atlanta-based Park Mobile, which has about 3 million users.

But Pango has five years of experience and handles about 2 million transactions a month in Israel, France, Germany and Poland. In Israel, more than 50 percent of parking revenue is generated through Pango; in Tel Aviv, the level of use is more than 90 percent, Shavit said.

The app-driven system can be used by universities, medical centers and municipalities with residential permit parking zones, said Jimmy Berg, a Baltimore native and Pango's director of business development.

Beyond providing parking convenience, the service has other uses.

Pango collects information on where and when people park, giving municipal officials a vehicle to inform users of street closures and parking restrictions. It also offers flexibility to local governments that want to establish variable parking fees during business hours or for spaces near sports stadiums.

"Parking is one of the most valuable assets a city has. It's real estate that gets rented by the hour. But officials have no idea how much money they're making until they go out and collect it," Berg said. "Pango gives them real-time information."

Pango data also can be used by local businesses to offer enticements, such as discounts, to those who park near their establishments, he said.

Shavit and Berg have traveled the country, hoping to attract a larger city that is tired of malfunctioning meters and kiosks and willing to try something new, something covered by a U.S. patent.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow morning because all of us are used to putting money in meters," Shavit said, "but someday, pay-by-phone will make parking meters as obsolete as pay phones."

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