It’s been nearly six months since Old Town’s parking meters exchanged the old-school cash and card system for online payments.
For some, it’s been a tricky thing to get a hang of.
The majority of the machines accept coins or payments made through the Honk Mobile application, but the option to pay with bills or a credit card have been eliminated on most terminals.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Sunay Nur spent several minutes struggling to use a parking meter at the intersection of Queen and Victoria streets.
The Mississauga resident told The Lake Report that with most parking meters, he could just “put the money in, and off I go.”
Frustrated, Nur had to download the Honk Mobile app and submit his licence plate number and credit card information in order to pay for a few hours of parking.
“The pricing is ridiculous, too. A person might think twice before they come,” Nur said.
The meters charge $5.25 an hour and don’t accept paper money.
Lisa Fetta was visiting Niagara-on-the-Lake with her family last Wednesday afternoon from Tottenham, Ont., and also had a hard time with a machine.
“This is ridiculous. The QR code doesn’t work: it doesn’t scan,” she said.
“Nobody carries $10 in coins,” she added.
While Nur struggled with figuring out his parking meter, Dean Gupta from Toronto approached a reporter to share his experience paying for parking.
“We just paid $25 and we were trying to pay $9,” he said.
This isn’t news to the town. For the past several months, councillors have been working on a solution to the problem.
Coun. Wendy Cheropita has been outspoken about her dismay with parking in Old Town since NOTL’s machines stopped accepting credit cards.
In the past few months, Cheropita said she has received numerous complaints about parking.
However, she emphasized that none of this was intentional on the town’s behalf.
“I can’t recall when (the original parking machines) were put in, but it was intended that they would operate for a long time,” she told The Lake Report.
“My understanding from the staff is that the company was actually going out of business,” she said, referring to the firm that manufactured the machines.
Cheropita said that going forward, the existing machines didn’t have the newest technology for accepting credit cards.
The cost for new machines would be around $900,000.
“That’s a huge piece of (the budget), so it’s not like we could just do that right away,” she said.
Honk Mobile was not an ad hoc solution for the broken machines, either. Cheropita said the app was meant to be used in tandem with a fully functional parking meter.
“A couple of years ago, the town found this Honk Mobile that was being used by a number of other municipalities across Ontario, and I think beyond. And so we added that just as a way of having another option,” she said.
Coun. Maria Mavridis told The Lake Report that Honk Mobile ended up helping the town, despite complaints about user-friendliness.
“Honk is still bringing in the revenue,” Mavridis said.
She explained that in an earlier budget discussion, council members considered switching solely to Honk Mobile since it eliminates the need to pay for collecting coins from the meters and other service costs.
“Now we know it’s a good idea not to go just Honk,” she said.
New machines will be installed next year, but until then adjustments are being made, Mavridis added.
Cheropita said cash-dispensing machines have been installed in Old Town and the few existing meters that accept credit cards were moved into the town centre where most tourist traffic exists.
“I put a pile of coins in my pocket so that I can give them out if I see anyone that’s stuck,” she added.
One of the primary complaints from those paying for parking is that, especially post-COVID, people don’t carry coins and that they are unable to use Honk Mobile without a smartphone data plan.
But not everyone has a plan, especially international visitors.
Florian, who drove to NOTL from the United States on a Sunday afternoon, was one of those.
He was trying to pay for parking near Grace United Church.
“It seems that there is a problem with the network. It’s not the parking system. We don’t have network access in this area,” he said.
Florian then explained that he was likely still connected to American cellular towers.
Mavridis suggested a simple solution for tourists without Canadian cellular service.
“I spoke to some other business owners and a lot of businesses along the street have open wifi for customers and guests,” she said.
Clear signage signalling locations with free wifi would help and tourists could stop at shops and restaurants to pay for their parking, she said.
“I can tell you right now Balzac’s has it, Exchange has it, Corks has it. Moving along the other way, the wine shop has it. You could literally go down Queen Street and everyone has it,” she added.
The consensus from the councillors is that Old Town’s parking machine failure is unfortunate, but changes are coming – eventually.
The town’s long-term parking strategy has been put in place and focuses on a phased-in approach to replace 30 of the 57 municipal parking meters.
There are also plans to include parking machine replacement in the 2024 budget process and to continue educating and guiding people toward using Honk Mobile.
“It’s very frustrating, but we need to communicate that things are being done: it’s getting there,” Mavridis said.