Quarters? How quaint.
When paying city parking meters, Baltimore drivers may soon be able to rely on smartphones. Just as in cities such as Washington and Tel Aviv, Paris and San Francisco, Baltimore is looking to develop an app for that.
The Parking Authority is soliciting bids from technology companies interested in providing a mobile phone application drivers can use to pay at thousands of parking meters across the city. The quasi-governmental agency has requested bid proposals from companies by mid-May for a three-year contract.
"This is all really part of our program to make it easier to park on the street here in Baltimore, and specifically to make it easier for them to pay," Peter Little, the Parking Authority's executive director, said. "Finding a parking space on the street can be difficult enough."
Mobile apps allow drivers to register credit cards and their license plate numbers, and then pay meters by typing a code on a meter's side into their phones. While many multispace parking meters already allow credit card payments in the city, the app service would allow users to add additional payments from their phones without returning to their parked vehicles.
That would allow young visitors to the city and older residents running errands to continue about their day patronizing city restaurants and businesses without fretting about getting a ticket, officials said.
Caron Brace, a spokeswoman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said the mayor sees the parking app as an "amenity" for Baltimore residents and visitors.
"The mayor is always about being progressive with regard to technology and staying on the pulse of what other cities are doing," Brace said. "It's definitely a convenient service."
The Parking Authority maintains more than 850 multispace parking meters, 5,000 single space meters and 12,000 on-street parking spaces in the city, according to the bid request. Under the contract, the winning bidder would provide 150 smartphones to be used for enforcement.
In the past several years, mobile parking apps have swept into hundreds of cities globally, often to warm reviews from local drivers. Some in Baltimore said they'd welcome the service as well.
Ali Balachow of Pikesville takes a break every two hours from her internship at Daniela Pasta & Pastries in Hampden to put more money into her car's parking meter, and said she would appreciate being able to re-up the meter without running outside several times a day.
Margaret Bloom, who hurried out to her car in the pouring rain one afternoon last week, nodded her agreement to the proposed pay-by-phone program.
"It would be convenient," the Hampden-Woodberry resident said through her car window, opened just a crack against the rain. "Especially in weather like this."
Little said he expects the app will serve between 15 percent and 20 percent of all Baltimore parkers once established.
Startups and venture capitalists are desperate to enter the mobile parking business, which is growing at a rapid pace, said Chris Morisawa, marketing manager for PayByPhone, which is considering bidding to add Baltimore to its network of 7 million users globally, including in Boston, Miami and Paris.
Little said several companies expressed interest at a pre-bid meeting hosted by the authority, which is on track to bring in about $12.5 million in parking meter revenue this fiscal year.
Laurens Eckelboom, executive vice president of business development at Park Mobile, an Atlanta-based company with some 10 million users globally and about 600 locations in the United States alone, including Washington, said while his company is looking to expand, he couldn't comment on whether it would bid in Baltimore.
"We are very excited about all the opportunities that are coming up," he said.
The mobile app parking service Pango, which opened its U.S. headquarters in Baltimore in 2011, also plans to bid on the Baltimore contract, said Dani Shavit, chief operating officer of Pango USA. Looking to expand in the United States after establishing footholds in Israel, France, Germany and Poland, the company has secured contracts in Alexandria, Va., and Scranton, Pa.
"People are ready to use any kind of app or tool to get more convenience, and that's what we're doing: providing more convenience for the parker," Shavit said.
The Baltimore parking effort follows others to modernize technology in city garages and existing parking meters, and comes as city officials are reevaluating parking enforcement. An unrelated bill before the City Council would rein in towing in the city by cutting down on the types of violations that can result in a vehicle being towed.
Mobile parking apps wouldn't be entirely new in Baltimore.
The Baltimore start-up Parking Panda, which was launched during Baltimore's first Startup Weekend in 2011 and recently landed a major contract to provide parking for Major League Baseball, provides pre-paid daily and monthly access to garages across the Baltimore area.
Nick Miller, a co-founder of Federal Hill-based Parking Panda, said his company won't be bidding because on-street parking is not the company's expertise, and it's a "tough business" because of thin profit margins — especially when it requires competing against the more established companies.
The Parking Authority requires bidders have three years of prior experience operating on-street systems, and currently be operating in five municipalities, three of which must have 8,000 or more on-street parking spaces.
Also, the Ravens have a deal with Chicago-based ParkWhiz that allows fans to shop for and secure game-day parking, and since this fall, another Chicago-based start-up, SpotHero, has been trying to establish itself as an alternative option for finding parking around Camden Yards.
Dean Bravos, senior vice president of ParkWhiz, said his company won't be bidding, but said he was glad to see the city embrace the technology.
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"Parking in particular is really one of the last great frontiers out there that hasn't really been impacted by the Internet. It's an old-school industry," he said. "Associating technology with parking is good. It's good for us; it's good for everybody."
The Parking Authority's request asks bidders to submit timelines for implementation of operations throughout the city, and requires a start date of no later than Dec. 31 for at least half of the city's metered parking spaces.
Little said the authority has not studied whether having the app available will cost the city revenue or bring in more. "Frankly, it's more about making it easier for people to park than taking a look at it as a revenue generator," he said.
Any proposed contract must be approved by the Board of Estimates.
Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.