The last time a parking meter was spotted on a downtown Roanoke street, it was a metal, coin-operated analog machine, a bulb-shaped appendage atop a metal pole, one per space.

Meters have returned to some city streets as part of a pilot program that begins Monday, and beyond the coin slot, they bear little resemblance to their predecessors.

Solar-powered, Wi-Fi-equipped, capable of taking payment by coin, credit or debit card, and smartphone, a single meter stands sentry for an entire city block.

Downtown visitors accustomed to the older model may have a learning curve, but the principle hasn’t changed.

Wyatt Poats, general manager of ParkRoanoke, promises a “huge presence” on the six blocks around the City Market area and on Franklin Road near Elmwood Park served by seven meters. The meters cover a total of about 65 spaces.

“We’ll have a lot of education next week,” Poats said.

The hope is that the meters will force more turnover of precious on-street parking spaces in the core of downtown, making it more likely that visitors will find open spaces when they come to businesses in and around the Market Square.

A city study found that during peak times, those spaces are 99 percent occupied.

The city’s parking structure is, in a sense, upside down, with the highest demand spaces around the market available for free, though time-limited, while spaces in garages not far away come with a fee. The hope is the meters will drive longer-term parkers to garages or to on-street spaces further away from the market that are still free and allow up to two hours.

During the pilot, payment will be required from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The first hour will be free, the second hour $1, and third hour $3, with a three hour maximum.

Friday, Poats demonstrated to reporters how to use the touch screen on the meters, from simply pressing start to entering your license plate number to hitting a green enter button to taking a receipt that shows the exact time the meter began running.

Poats stressed that it’s important to indicate you’ve parked on the meter even if you intend to stay only during the free first hour.

A smartphone app, called Whoosh, allows parkers to add time to their meter remotely so they can extend their paid time without leaving a meeting or a store or restaurant.

Also, parkers who arrive before 8 a.m., when the meters begin accepting payment each weekday, can check in with the meter ahead of time, and the clock won’t begin running until 8.

Poats said enforcement of meter use will be an “ease-in process.”

“Of course we’re going to work with folks,” he said.

“I think we’re going to learn a lot ... we want to make sure it’s the right step,” Poats said.

During the interview with Poats Friday, two drivers interrupted to ask if the meters were in use yet, one prepared to pay, the other prepared to look for a space elsewhere.

Poats took that as a sign that the adjustment may go well.

Anyone wanting to offer feedback can share it with ParkRoanoke staff on the street next week, via a survey at parkroanoke.com, or by calling the ParkRoanoke office at 343-0585.

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Matt Chittum covers Roanoke City. A Roanoke native, he’s been at the Roanoke Times for more than two decades, having overcome an inauspicious start with a part-time clerical job.

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