Fleet Financial Group is issuing smart cards for use in 200 parking meters near Boston University.

The Boston banking company's first chip cards are part of a test, begun Oct. 6 and scheduled to run at least three months, to measure consumer interest in a service that Fleet executives say may prove more popular than the more basic type of electronic purse.

A replacement for feeding coins to parking meters is more appealing than "buying a cup of coffee and a newspaper and a bagel" with a smart card, said Michael J. Curran, executive vice president and managing director of Fleet's global services division.

He was contrasting Fleet's focused program with the New York City smart card trial by Chase Manhattan Bank, Citibank, MasterCard, and Visa. In the latter, 100,000 cards are usable at 400 merchant locations but not in parking meters. Nor are the international card associations involved in the Boston pilot test.

Fleet is working with the city of Boston, which has installed the meters that can accept stored-value cards as well as coins. Cards are sold at three convenience stores on the Boston University campus, though sales and distribution are not limited to the school or its students.

The card technology provider is Setec Oy, a subsidiary of Finland's central bank and a supplier to several European and Asian banks.

Fleet is not the first to view parking as a stored-value application, if not a "killer app." In the Guelph, Ontario, trial of Mondex Canada, a franchise of the MasterCard-affiliated Mondex International program, smart cards have been accepted since late 1997 in 636 downtown parking meters.

"The city seems to be happy with the return and usage in the meters," which also take coins, said Cindy Pearson, community relations manager for Mondex Canada. "People keep Mondex cards in their cars just for parking."

"From a technical point of view, we have not had any problems whatsoever," said David Creech, city administrator of Guelph, where 500 merchants, city buses, and public phones are also wired for Mondex. But at 10% of parking meter payments, "usage hasn't reached the point where I'd like it to be."

The 10% share is in line with other uses of the card. The program will not be "truly successful until there are other applications on the card" besides cash replacement, Mr. Creech said.

Boston officials are optimistic and say they may add card-reading meters if the program goes well. Among questions the city wants to answer is how well the meters perform in extreme winter weather.

"Enthusiasm seems already to be indicating that an expansion could be under discussion sooner rather than later," Mr. Curran said.

The impetus came from the fact that in Boston a limited supply of parking spaces and breakdowns of meters are municipal preoccupations, made worse by theft and vandalism ascribed in part to the sizable student population.

"The city is experiencing both lost revenue and increased maintenance expenses," Mr. Curran said.

The city and the university are "highly valued customers" that Fleet Bank is "concerned with trying to solve problems for," he said. The project is "an attempt to help commercial customers, as opposed to satisfying a groundswell of demand from the retail constituency."

Particularly appealing to Boston officials was the electronic nature of the card system, which means less currency is handled by municipal workers, Mr. Curran said.

To measure response to the program, the city, the university, and Fleet are sending "meter greeters" to interview passers-by. Data are also being gathered from the meters and from the card sellers.

"We have great reporting capabilities, so the commercial customer will be able to learn something about their equipment and their customers," said Fleet vice president and project manager Allen Pease.

The newfangled parking meters, with electronic rather than mechanical time displays, are supplied by POM Inc. of Russellville, Ark. Fleet has invited two other manufacturers to submit designs for smart card meters, anticipating that the city might want to replace more of its 7,800 meters.

Fred Granberg, manager of international operations for Setec Oy, said Fleet is issuing cards with "full-fledged microprocessor chips" that could handle myriad other functions. "This can evolve into a bigger system, an open system, with different applications on the card," he said.

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