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.
Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.