“Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’.
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’.”
— Bob Dylan
The times indeed are changin’ for drivers in Keene. The questions are how quickly that change will come and how well they’ll adapt.
We’re talking about parking; the most often discussed topic relating to downtown Keene for … well, for a long time now. But the talk these days isn’t about new parking garages or the loss of dirt spaces. It’s all about technology.
For generations, downtown parking has been regulated through meters. Once fully analog, the latest ones feature digital displays and chips that record time and such. But even that advance has become passe with the advent of smartphones and apps. It’s not only that drivers can now pay via credit card or even through mobile apps; it’s that the coin of the realm is no longer coins. Young adults today are far less likely to carry change, or even cash, at all. Thus, the city’s move away from parking methods that only accept nickels, dimes and quarters is inevitable.
But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.
Keene’s parking division has been experimenting with alternatives to metered parking spaces for years. About seven years ago, kiosks were installed along a stretch of Main Street, calling for parkers to insert money or credit cards and type in the number of the space they parked in, assuming they looked and could recall it. It was a huge bust, with operators confused and business owners howling that the change was causing people to go elsewhere to eat or buy. A 90-day trial was scrapped after 40 days of complaints.
A year or so later, the city began using a mobile app through which users could scan a QR code to pay for their space. In 2015, the Commercial Lot behind The Colonial Theatre went kiosk. This past fall, the resurfaced Gilbo Avenue lot saw all its meters vanish in favor of kiosks. Somehow, drivers have been able to adapt to the idea in lots — perhaps because that’s a common configuration elsewhere.
On the streets, however, it’s still causing a commotion as helpless, or hapless, parkers struggle to decipher the system and work the machines. At least, that’s the story according to Central Square business owner Dorrie Masten. Masten, who owns The Pour House bar and Pedraza’s Mexican Restaurant, among other properties. Masten has been complaining about the kiosk in front of her businesses for at least a year. The kiosk was installed in 2017, replacing 14 meters for the spaces between Winter and West streets.
Masten complained last April, but the City Council left the kiosk in place. Again last month, Masten requested the city remove the kiosk and go back to meters, saying she’s losing business because customers can’t figure out how to work the device or find it’s too much trouble; the kiosk calls for drivers to input their license plate number when paying. The difficulties have also been exacerbated by periodic glitches in the kiosk software.
This time, the city seems more receptive to her argument — at least, to a point. A council panel voted last month to recommend removing the kiosk and reinstalling meters, saying the experiment had not worked and that it’s unfair to businesses to have a different type of parking in only one area.
Last week, another council panel voted to change the operation, but keep a different type of kiosk, for now. The system will call for drivers to get a printed receipt from the kiosk and place it on their dashboard, rather than remember their license plate number. The full council votes on the 30-day trial proposal Thursday evening.
While it’s good city officials are being responsive and open-minded, and especially beneficial that the month-long trial comes at no cost to taxpayers — the vendor of the pay-and-display kiosk is footing the bill — we’re also glad to see the city not abruptly reverse course and go back to meters.
Meters are more expensive and time-consuming for parking staff. They’re also becoming obsolete, given current technological advances. Older drivers may still struggle a bit to adapt, but there’s no question coinless parking is the future, and the city is right to be looking at implementing it.
The times they are a changin’.