Are ‘smart’ parking meters too smart for us?

This smart parking meter might know some things that you don’t.
This smart parking meter might know some things that you don’t.

Are smart parking meters smarter than you and I?

The new electronic meters have been around downtown Sacramento for more than a year, and in numerous other cities as well. But plenty of us don’t know exactly what fancy new things those meters allow us to do.

For instance, a reader last week was headed to a convention center breakfast with Gov. Jerry Brown that started at 7:30 a.m. She wanted to park on the street, but the meter hours don’t start until 8 a.m. She’d probably get a ticket, she figured, because she’d be in listening to the governor talk at about the time the meters clicked on. She couldn’t just run out and feed the meter.

No need to, it turns out. The new meters know things that you don’t know they know. You can put money in or use your credit card early as 6 a.m. and the meter will wait and start marking you time later, at 8 a.m. So if our reader had paid for two hours’ worth of time, the meter would have registered that payment as good for the 8 to 10 a.m. time period.

How are we supposed to know that, though? The meter will tell you, city parking meter chief Mike King says. You just have to stare into its face. The display screen has changeable messages. King said the meters, in early morning, typically read something like: “Thursday. Free parking until 8 a.m. Prepay available.”

That’s great. But that’s new and not immediately obvious for those of us used to old meters that just had an arrow behind the glass showing the time. Some of us might even wonder exactly what the meter means by “prepay.”

Officials acknowledge there is a definite learning curve, especially for those who don’t park downtown frequently. The city’s Public Works Department has a parking services webpage that explains the intricate rules involving smart meters.

As for our reader, she played it safe. But not cheap. She ended up parking in a garage – for $16.