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Loathsome Rita: Why We Need Better Parking Meters

By Wesley Fenlon

Parking meters were once installed to save cities from horrible parking problems, but too much off-street parking ended up making things worse than ever.

Free Parking changed the game. Once upon a time, it was an innocuous safe space on the Monopoly board, a place the top hat or thimble could catch a breather before tiptoeing across the dangerous red and yellow properties. Then came the house rule: taxes and bank fees went to the middle of the board, not to the banker, and whoever landed on Free Parking got themselves a fat stack of life-saving loot. Monopoly games got longer, sure wins dragged out into boring wars of attrition, and Free Parking became one of the most important spots on the board. Ironically, the damaging effect of Monopoly's most popular house rule reflects the actual effect free parking has had on American cities.

Collector's Weekly published a story on Friday about the history of parking meters, dating back to the invention and installation of the first meter in Oklahoma City in 1935. The parking meter monetized parking at a time when city driving was downright nightmarish; as everyone in America rushed to own their own cars, poor parking regulation led to clogged streets and constant gridlocks. The parking meter looked like salvation: Shops on metered streets actually saw their sales increase, as parking meters ensured quicker turnovers and helped fund street improvements and regulation enforcement.

Photo Credit: Flickr user dylan_brown via Creative Commons

But there was a problem: City officials believed that more off-street parking was necessary to cut down on street congestion. Drivers were willing to feed the meter to park on the street, but free parking was already, to some extent, the expectation of every private automobile owner. Collector's Weekly explains:

"In his definitive book, 'The High Cost of Free Parking,' Donald Shoup explains that minimum parking requirements 'led planners and developers to think that parking is a problem only when there isn’t enough of it. But too much parking is also a problem—it wastes money, degrades urban design, increases impervious surface area, and encourages overuse of cars.' Besides the fact that legally required lots are often more than half-empty, they result in a variety of negative impacts, from environmental runoff issues to inhospitable pedestrian zones. Instead of using the tools available to limit automobile use and encourage free-flowing street traffic, Shoup explains that planners traditionally did the opposite, requiring 'enough off-street spaces to satisfy the peak demand for free parking.'

Additionally, such ordinances falsely reduced the explicit cost of city driving, transferring the true expense of so-called 'free' parking to every citizen in the vicinity, diffused into taxes, real estate, product, and service fees. In effect, this legislation created an environment where 'nobody can opt out of paying for parking,' says Jeff Speck, renowned urban planner and author of the book, 'Walkable Cities.'

The rest of the story goes on to explain how meters could make our cities better (and how they already have in Europe). Prices are actually too low, reflecting the mentality that we have a built-in "right" to parking, and smarter maintenance of parking prices could help balance out the need for off-street parking requirements. The first step: Getting new parking meters across the country that support credit cards, not just quarters and dimes.