Time Expired

The end of the parking meter.

Check out a Magnum Photos gallery of parking and parking meters.

Seventy-five years ago, the world’s first parking meter cast its thin, ominous shadow on the streets of Oklahoma City. The meter was the brainchild of Carlton C. Magee, a local publisher and Chamber of Commerce Traffic Committee chief, and he hoped it would solve the city’s chronic parking problems. In the pre-meter days, police would drive around with stopwatches and chalk, enforcing the city’s parking time limits by marking the tires of cars seen squatting for too long, but the system was ill-equipped to handle the “endemic overparking” problem. Even worse, a survey found that at any given time, 80 percent of the city’s spots were occupied by employees of downtown businesses—the very same businesses complaining that lack of parking was driving away shoppers. Calling for an “efficient, impartial, and thoroughly practical aid to parking regulation,” Magee held a student-design contest and launched his instrument.

Magee’s meter was crude—only later models had the red “expired” warning flag—and its mechanism was hardly Swiss in its movements. (In an Einsteinian turn, early meters were often said to “shorten time.”) But McGee’s device was effective—a spark cast upon the vast, dry tinder of congested downtowns. “The parking meter’s rapid and eventually universal spread can be understood on at least two grounds,” write John Jakle and Keith Sculle in their illuminating book Lots of Parking. First, meters did the job, ensuring a steadier supply of parking by increasing turnover. Second, they took what had been a “free” good—free only in the sense it was not charged for on the spot—and turned it into a viable revenue stream for cities.

And a perpetual irritant for motorists. Parking meters are hacked (check youtube), stolen (watch Cool Hand Luke), and otherwise subjected to a variety of abuse (physical and even sexual assaults)—as are those charged with their enforcement. Is it that we simply don’t like to pay for what we think should be free? Or is it something deeper—does their ruthless ticking not serve as some stark reminder of our mortality? (“Time Expired.”) Whatever the reason, parking meters are loved only when they are broken.

Three-quarters of a century on, several things are clear. The first is that parking meters, a seemingly mundane fact of the urban landscape, remain as fraught and controversial as when they were first installed. And secondly, the time has finally come for a sweeping rethink of the parking meter—in part because of changes in technology, and in part because of an emerging change in the way we think about parking in cities.

Early on, parking meters weren’t usually installed wholesale, notes parking scholar Donald Shoup. In his book, The High Cost of Free Parking, he writes that Oklahoma City began with a trial on only one side of the street. “On the unmetered side is confusion,” noted the city’s manager. “On the metered side is order, sufficient room for every car to be parked and driven out quickly and easily, and there are usually parking spaces open.” Two years later, Shoup writes, there were more than 20,000 meters in 35 cities.

There were objections. When the Merchants Association suggested meters for New York City in 1936, it was greeted by a legal challenge from the local Automobile Club, which declared, as reported in the New York Times, that neither the state nor city had the “power to charge the owners of automobiles for parking in the streets, for any purpose whatsoever, whether it be to raise revenue or to regulate traffic.” That same year, borough president Samuel Levy declared the parking meter “has no place upon the city streets.” Indeed, while the image of New York City is now irrevocably bound up with arcane parking regulations and meters—and one might imagine them as the product of the congested, big-government East Coast, not a wildcatting, low-tax Western city—it was not until 1951 that the first meters hit Gotham.

Meters came even later to London. The first sixpence, notes historian Joe Moran, was pressed into a meter in Mayfair in 1958, sparking some populist resistance. (“They’ve stuck parking meters/ outside our doors to greet us,” sang Max Bygraves—and, yes, the couplet rhymes—in his 1960 song “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be,” a sort of Cockney version of Merle Haggard’s “That’s the Way It Was in ‘51.”) *

Although meters soon became widespread, it was a long time before we understood how they changed American parking. Let the questions unspool in your mind: How long do drivers park at meters? How many go over the limit? How many drivers are ticketed? How many meters fail?

In 1987, Aaron Adiv and Wanzhi Wang produced a wonderfully detailed paper titled “On Street-Parking Meter Behavior,” an effort to combat what they called “a lack of systematic knowledge about parking behavior at parking meters.” Among the more interesting findings of the study (which looked at Ann Arbor, Mich., but whose findings, according to the authors, were representative of much of the United States): That meter occupancy was nearly 100 percent; that four in five parkers used the meters for less than an hour; that the “real cost” to parkers of fees and fines had actually declined over the past few decades; and, strikingly, that enforcement is quite low. Only 8.1 percent of violations were ticketed, they found, and “exceeded time—the hours taken up by cars parked illegally once the meter expires—used up 25 percent of the total “space-hours,” reducing capacity by as much as 61 percent.

On this last point, the authors suggested that a private-public partnership might help raise enforcement levels, turnover, and revenues. And this is exactly what has happened in Chicago (which in 2008 sold the rights to its meters, for the next 75 years, to Morgan Stanley; the Chicago Reader provides the fullest account), and may soon happen in other cities, including Pittsburgh and Indianapolis.

Are such initiatives good for cities, and for drivers? At the very least, they’re good for the private companies that run them. Whether by lack of competence or lack of political will, cities are highly ineffective in extracting money out of meters. But as the Chicago News Cooperative has reported, Chicago Parking Meters, the consortium that now (with Morgan Stanley as a controlling interest) runs the city’s meters, collected $73 million in its first year of operation—more than three times the city’s average take—by increasing enforcement and raising rates.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with this. Poor enforcement makes parking effectively cheaper, distorting the supply and demand of the parking market. And, as transportation planners like Shoup argue, much urban on-street parking is underpriced already—which is a problem, since drivers looking for cheap parking contribute greatly to congestion. Cheap parking costs us in time. But, apart from the widely held idea that Chicago gave away its 36,000 meters too cheaply ($1.15 billion for the 75-year term), there are other reasons to question the arrangement. For one, part of Shoup’s idea of raising meter prices with a goal of 85 percent occupancy—thus ensuring turnover and reducing the time drivers spend cruising for spaces—is that increased revenues would be plowed back into improving the neighborhoods where the meters are found (what Shoup calls “parking benefit districts”). Other scholars such as David Hoyt suggests such revenues might even support “related public goods such as a modernized transportation system.”

But this prospect, Hoyt notes, “is entirely lost in the Morgan Stanley privatization deal. What could be a long-term revenue generator for a city in budgetary crisis and with an enormous backlog of deferred public transportation maintenance has been traded for a one-time fix in operating revenue.” Rather than increased parking prices helping pay for better public transportation, the bank is banking on the lack of public transportation in its profit picture. As a Moody’s analyst wrote, “public transportation is not convenient to areas of the parking system outside of the central business district, which are expected to generate the majority of revenues.”

There are other problems, argues urban planner Aaron Renn, in the city locking up its parking policy for the next 75 years. Seventy-five years ago we did not have paid on-street parking; who knows what the parking future will bring? “Parking spots,” writes Renn, “are the curb lane of your streets. Your streets are the primary public space in your city. They are intimately connected with everything that happens in the city.” The deal, he argues, assigns a “property right interest in the biggest component of public space in the city to a private monopoly that doesn’t have the public’s best interests at heart. The city of Chicago has ceded a portion of its urban planning powers to a private company.”

Of course, most people don’t really pause to think of parking meters as integral to wider transportation issues, or even as public space. As planner Paul Barter, writing about Park(ing) Day, the now global project in which people commandeer parking spaces to display art, have a picnic, or pretty much do anything but park a car, observes, “I suspect that most people don’t really think of ‘feeding the parking meter’ as some kind of rental payment for real-estate space. If motorists really did see it that way, it might be a lot easier for cities to bring in rational parking pricing policies.”

But rationality often is left at the curb when it comes to paid parking—and the meters that enforce it. Barter contends that we see meter fees as yet another tax; in his novel Millennium People, J.G. Ballard, suggesting that “the bourgeoisie are the new proletariat,” includes the vandalism of parking meters in his taxonomy of new class rage. And a onetime viewing of the show Parking Wars will confirm this sense of motorist persecution—and conversely, entitlement. “It’s a controversy in every city,” Andrew Dunn, the show’s producer, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “People feel entitled to parking without paying. It’s like free air.”

In New York City and other places, parking meter “grace periods”—an extra five minutes for someone whose meter has expired—have been floated for lazy political gain. But such plans merely postpone and complicate the inevitable confrontation with the hapless traffic agent; not to mention that your five minutes of grace is everyone else’s parking hell. And to quote Bike Snob: “Why do we—a people who are supposed to be the hardiest, savviest urbanites in the United States (if not the entire Western world)—need an extra five minutes to move our cars? … [W]e’re so fast that they actually named a unit of time after us.”

There is hope on the horizon, however: The eventual abolishment of the parking meter. I am not talking here about removing paid parking altogether as some cities, seemingly ignoring the lessons of the past, keep trying to do. (Eugene, Ore., recently removed parking meters and will go back to chalk-based enforcement, echoing that old refrain that parking meters drive away business; the city’s parking manager observed, “we are counting on downtown businesses to police their own, as employee parking on street will make or break the program.”Good luck with that.)

Rather, I’m talking about the advent of any number of new systems for paying for parking. There are, for example, pay-by-mobile-phone parking providers (for example, Parkmobile), which require drivers to put the code of a parking space into an app rather than coins into a meter. There are also even simpler “park and walk away” systems, like one being tested in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which essentially put the meter in one’s car. No more curbside confrontations, no more vandals jamming things in slots, no more overpaying for time you did not use, no more tickets because you were a few minutes late, no more bothering the dry cleaner for quarters.

Now, pay your respects and go feed the meter.

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Correction, Oct. 20, 2010: This article originally misspelled the last name of Max Bygraves. (Return to the corrected sentence.)