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'I don't want to live in the Matrix': Parking in some spots requires smartphone

Cindi Eckis doesn’t have a smartphone, and she doesn’t want one.

“It makes my life simpler,” the Cheektowaga retiree said.

But sticking with her flip phone will make it tougher for her and other low-tech motorists to find a place to park along some streets of downtown Buffalo.

A new parking policy being rolled out by city officials adds parking zones where the only way to pay to park is through the Buffalo Roam parking app.

Blue "Pay by app only" signs went up earlier this week on Cobblestone District streets. "Pay from your phone," the signs read. "Download Buffalo Roam."

Eckis doesn't understand why someone should have to carry a smartphone to park on some downtown streets.

“I just don’t want to live in the Matrix,” she said Thursday.

Last week, the Buffalo Common Council unanimously approved Mayor Byron W. Brown’s “Downtown Parking Access Plan. The plan included doubling of metered parking rates to as much as $2 an hour, ending free parking on weeknights and weekends and adding hundreds of new paid street parking spots. The parking plan was met with an uproar of criticism, with more than 21,000 people signing an online petition started by a downtown restaurant worker protesting the changes.

On Wednesday, city officials offered something of a compromise — allowing free street parking to continue on weeknights and weekends when there are no major concerts, shows or games at major downtown venues.

After thousands sign petition, Buffalo to return some free parking

The Buffalo Roam app debuted in May 2017. The idea was to provide a convenient way to pay at all of the city’s 3,900 on-street paid parking spots. The app also warns users when their time is about to expire with a text message 15 minutes before time runs out and gives them the ability to extend their parking sessions from their phones.

The app prompts users to input their credit or debit card information to pay the parking costs, along with an additional 10 cent fee.

Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer acknowledged the Roam-only zones exclude some motorists.

"We don't have a system that can be everything to everyone all the time," Helfer said during a news conference at the corner of Perry and Mississippi streets Thursday.

Most people have smartphones, Helfer said. About 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, according to a study released in February by the Pew Research Center. And for those people, the app is far more convenient than having to remember to carry around quarters or walk back and forth to a pay-and-display machine down the block to get a parking receipt.

The city tested Roam-only parking around Michigan Avenue and Goodell Street and are now adding streets around KeyBank Center, Helfer said.

Fewer parking tickets are written in areas where Roam is offered, Helfer said.

Also, the city saves money by not having to install meters, which cost $600 a piece, or the pay-and-display machines, which are $12,000 each.

Eckis understands raising the price for parking and figures she will just park in ramps that are farther away from her destination if she's faced with a Roam-only parking spot.

"It won't discourage me if I'm going downtown just for myself," she said.

But she might feel differently on a snowy, windy day.

"You want to park close to a restaurant when the weather is bad," Eckis said.

Dharold West, a property manager in the Cobblestone District, likened the parking app to the situation faced by drivers who don’t have an EZ-Pass face when they drive through the cashless toll booths on Grand Island’s bridges.

“What are people going to do?” he questioned.

A 'fluid' plan

Ginine Capozzi, a business consultant who lives in East Amherst and often meets clients in downtown, wants the city to make some changes to the Buffalo Roam app.

“The app solution has been convenient, although not perfect,” she said in an email.

Capozzi doesn’t like that she can’t move her car from one parking zone to another without having to pay again, even though it’s the same parking rate.

“This either forces an app user to overpay for a spot based the actual time used or take the risk of staying parked illegally and get a ticket,” Capozzi said.

Capozzi also feels the city could have done a much better job in rolling out the new parking plan.

“I am disappointed in the way city leadership has handled the changes to paid on-street parking and am shocked that with the progress made in recent years to draw people to city businesses and events that they’d make such a wide-impacting change with little transparency and input from the public,” Capozzi said.

Helfer told reporters Thursday that the city is responding to the feedback from the public and will continue to tweak the parking plan as his department gathers data.

"I said from the beginning this parking plan will be fluid," he said. "We've made some modifications. We heard what the public said."

Many people were especially irked over the original plan which called for an end to free parking on Saturdays and after 5 p.m. on weekdays.

On Wednesday, Common Council President Darius Pridgen and Mayor Byron W. Brown worked on a deal to put event rate parking in place on weeknights and Saturdays only during major events at Shea's Performing Arts Center, Sahlen Field, Canalside and KeyBank Center on designated streets around those venues.

The Sabres game at KeyBank Center made Thursday the first night under the event rate parking. Parking was $2 an hour on the following streets: Illinois Street, from Perry Street to South Park Avenue; Lloyd Street; Hanover Street; South Park (North Side) from Washington Street to Main Street; Perry, from Chicago Street to Illinois; Mississippi, from Perry to South Park; Columbia Street (West Side) from Perry to South Park; Chicago, from Perry to South Park; Prime Street (West Side) from Lloyd to Perry; and Moore Street (West Side) from Miami Street to South Park. The rate was $4 for 10 hours on Exchange Street, from Washington to Michigan avenues.

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