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A Brief History of the Parking Meter

A Brief History of the Parking Meter
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Imagine the plight of the urban planner, circa 1930.

What was once the transportation mode for the rich has become de rigueur for the masses. Streets meant for horse and buggy now needed to transport hundreds of cars to and from work every day. Then, of course, there was the question of parking. By the 1920s, downtown shop owners had begun to complain in earnest about the parked cars left by workers during the day.

Without proper infrastructure, shoppers had no place to stop; as a result, business was dropping rapidly. 

This was a problem in cities across America. But no place was quite so innovative as Oklahoma City.

There, storekeepers turned to newspaperman Carl C. Magee (who, we should note, is also famous for uncovering the Teapot Dome Scandal in New Mexico and shooting a corrupt judge in a fight in Las Vegas). Magee had his own ideas, but he also sponsored a contest calling for designs of a timing device that would allocate set amounts of time for parking. The winner - the Black Maria - was based on a machine created by Magee and Gerald A. Hale. Hale and Magee formed the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company. The first meter was installed on the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue on July 16, 1935.

The totally mechanical devices required a nickel each hour and were placed at 20-foot intervals along the curb, on the spaces painted on the pavement.

Like most parking decisions, this one stirred up controversy from the start. Drivers were outraged, calling the meters a tax on their right to own vehicles. But they parked at the metered spots anyway because it was where they could find a spot.

Soon, it was difficult to find a spot without meters. Storekeepers clamored for them, and city officials were none-too-disappointed by the extra revenue.

In a summer, the era of the parking meter had begun.

Word of the parking meter began to spread across the country spurred in part by proud

Courtesy: Popular Mechanics

Oklahoma City officials. Magee-Hale quickly faced competition from the likes of Dual Parking Meter Company, Mark-Time and Duncan-Miller.

By the early 1940s, there were more than 140,000 parking meters in operation across the U.S. By 1944, American cities were generating some $10 million annually from parking.

The money came from the meters and from the fines issued to those who didn't pay. In a clever bit of legal maneuvering, cities overcame the argument that they couldn't charge for use of public spaces (roads) by claiming that what drivers were paying for is the enforcement of parking, not the space itself.


An explanation of the parking meter; courtesy: Popular Mechanics, 1959

There was little variation in parking meter design until the 1980s. What did change, however, was the method of enforcement. The meter maid first infiltrated American cities in the 1950s to crack down on illegal parkers.

Meter maids have been unpopular with the public pretty much since the beginning. In 1965, Australia's Surfer's Paradise experimented with the gold-lame-bikini clad meter maid to "help beat the bad image created by the installation of parking meters on the tourist strip." The promotion was controversial. The Beatles also helped with "Lovely Rita," a song that introduced the term to England.

In the 1980s, the parking meter began to make some technological advances. At first, the shift was from mechanical machines to battery-operated systems. New York began making the shift to the battery operated systems in 1995. The last mechanical meter was replaced in 2006. At the time, Iris Weinshall, the city’s transportation commissioner, told the New York Times, “The world changes ... Just as the token went, now the manual meter has gone.”

But slowly, flashier models came into existence. Computerized multi-space meters incorporate on-screen instructions and credit card acceptors - no more coin jams. More recently, Washington, D.C., installed solar-panel machines. Some systems even let you pay by cell phone.

Today, Automobile Evolution estimates there are between four and five million parking meters in the United States.

Photo credit: Jason Jones/Shutterstock.com

 

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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