Parking Tokens: A Viable Alternative to Cash


Parking Tokens: A Viable Alternative to Cash

While cash-based parking meters are the standard in the industry, token-based systems can offer significant advantages. Among them are safety, ergonomics, and the opportunity to participate in promotional opportunities with downtown merchants. While safety and ergonomics are clearly leading reasons why municipalities prefer tokens, partnering with central business districts and merchant groups can provide a real, tangible reason for people to visit downtown – free parking! And getting people to head downtown rather than to the suburban mall is clearly “top of mind” for municipalities across the country.
Parking tokens are safer than cash-based parking systems because municipal employees are not at risk during collections. That is because during parking meter collections, workers typically carry hundreds of dollars worth of change – making them an attractive target for thieves. That same employee handling collections for a token-based system, however, is not at risk, because the tokens have no cash value – and hence are of no interest to robbers and thieves.
In addition, because meters contain tokens rather than cash (or perhaps in addition to cash) then vandals find them a much less viable target. Keeping vandals away from parking meters can prolong their service life and save the municipality from replacing them prematurely.
While safety and ergonomics are certainly viable reasons for selecting token-based programs, perhaps the biggest advantage that tokens offer is as a tool for downtown merchants. Partnering with downtown merchant associations, business districts, and other groups helps to promote downtown as a viable place for shopping, eating and recreation and entertainment.
Municipalities can purchase tokens and then re-sell them to downtown merchants who provide them to customers as an incentive to shop downtown. One municipality which has taken part in such a program for years is the City of Boulder, CO.
Parking tokens with a face value of $1.25 – the cost to park in a downtown or University Hill spot for an hour – are sold to merchants for just $1. Merchants can sell these to customers, but most provide them to customers free of charge as an incentive to shop downtown. In fact, when the city transitioned from parking meters to kiosk pay stations, the one aspect of the Boulder parking program which did not change was the use of tokens.
“The Downtown Merchants Association provides their members with window stickers that clearly identify them as participants in the “We Validate Parking’ program” said Parking Services Financial Manager/Supervisor Donna Jobert. Companies that participate “do very well with the program” she said.
Patrons visit a store to shop or dine, and when leaving, they’ll be given a token to pay for an hours worth of parking. The token, which can be used for this trip or the next one, is typically kept with pocket change – and serves as a reminder to plan another trip to Boulder.
In addition to the valuable service that the parking token provides – free downtown parking – the tokens also have other benefits for customers using them. A single token is easier to insert into the pay station kiosk than the five quarters that it replaces. This can speed the process – especially important during cold Boulder winters. The single token is also lighter and easier to carry than five quarters.
If patrons opt to use the token to pay for parking on a future sojourn to Boulder, then they have a tangible reminder each time they see the parking token with their pocket change. That branding opportunity is one reason why parking administrators from Boulder opted to have tokens minted with the Boulder logo on them rather than standard “free parking” tokens which are also available from vendors like
Those companies which offer the free parking tokens are well pleased with the results. Naturally, the customers who use the tokens appreciate the gesture too. And keeping patrons visiting downtown Boulder is always a plus for city managers and officials. Clearly those are more than token benefits for all parties involved.
Jim Wahl is CEO of Wahl Marketing Communications. He can be reached at

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Jim Wahl
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