From its obscure and humble beginnings in Oklahoma, the parking meter has become a ubiquitous street presence whose long shadow now looms darkly over our motoring experience
BY MARTY D. WOLFAND
The shape of things to come
Boston Transportation Department deputy commissioner for field operations Dan Hoffman has an electronic vision of Boston’s parking future. It’s one in which every meter in the city is linked to a central computer, which will know when a meter has been vandalized or has merely crapped out on its own, and will automatically send out a police officer or maintenance person to deal with the problem. If a street is to be designated "no parking" for a day, master control will send out the message. No longer will the BTD have to collect an average of nearly three million quarters a month — roughly 16 metric tons of pocket change; instead, motorists will pay their meter fees with rechargeable "Smart Cards," which may allow the BTD to track individual parking habits and other information. The system might even summon a parking-enforcement officer to write you a ticket the very minute your meter time is up.
"Of course, all that’s a long way off," Hoffman admits. "We just don’t have the resources right now for that kind of system." But the BTD has already begun to wade into the electronic-parking world at least enough to get its collective toes wet.
Before coming to Boston five years ago, Hoffman was involved with the implementation of New York City’s Parking Card program. That city’s card comes in denominations of $10, $20, and $50, and is touted as the answer to pockets full of coins and getting ticketed while you’re running around trying to get change for a dollar.
When he got to Boston, Hoffman instituted a pilot Smart Card program for five months on State Street and near Boston University’s Comm Ave campus. "There was a definite increase in efficiency" on these routes, says Hoffman.
The BTD plans to start another electronic pilot program sometime this fall, according to James Mansfield, director of community and intergovernmental services. The program will use "multi-space" meters, which will control up to eight parking spaces from one meter head and will take both Smart Cards and quarters. They’ll begin to appear on Cambridge Street, Union Street, Bay State Road, Deerfield Street, and Dartmouth Street. The department decided to take this modest first step after studying a number of electronic systems in the US and Europe, some of which more closely follow Hoffman’s ultimate vision.
One of the companies participating in the pilot will be industry giant Schlumberger Parking Systems, a worldwide company whose systems control 2.6 million parking spaces in 3000 cities and 40 countries, a reported 60 percent of the world’s total market share.
In Britain, the city of Manchester has 107 meters — each of which controls 15 to 20 parking spaces — that are run from a central computer station located 250 kilometers away. Each is monitored around the clock, and sounds alarms at central headquarters when money is paid in by change or Smart Card and when time is up.
In Miami, Schlumberger is installing solar-powered Pay & Display — you put a printed receipt on your windshield — a multi-space system controlled by its ParkfolioWeb monitoring system, which allows the city to tap into any parking meter with an Internet-equipped PC. Here, too, equipment "status" is reported by real-time alarms.
In Madrid last October, Schlumberger installed 1200 computer-networked meters (the company prefers to call them "terminals") that control a total of 40,000 parking spaces. Elsewhere in Spain, another 7000 Schlumberger units control an additional 200,000 spaces.
Other players in the parking-meter game go even further. Soprano Design of Australia installed 404 wireless-enabled parking meters in Leichhardt in 2001. Users can pay meter fees over their cell phones, using either text messaging or voice commands. (If they want to, they can still use coins.) Parkers can even receive alerts that their meter is running out, and they can remotely "recharge" the meter from wherever they are.
Another Australian company, Timeticket, is promoting its "user-friendly" Vector Parking System. An electronic device is put on your dashboard after you park your car, and it automatically sends a wireless signal to a civic receiver, which then assesses a parking charge to your account.
One can only wonder what Carl Magee, were he alive today, would think.
— MWWeb of parking information
If you log onto Google and type in the words "parking meters," you’ll be confronted with "about 344,000" sites dedicated to the darn things. These run the gamut, from parking-meter-system-maker and city-transportation-department pages, to sites explaining complex parking regulations in cities and towns worldwide, to sites dedicated to what can only be described as the bizarre side of parking-meter chic.
• St. Helen’s Church of London devotes a large part of its Web site — otherwise concerned with "What Is a Christian," "Church Family," and other spiritual issues — to finding a place to park nearby (www.st-helens.org.uk/park.html). It breaks up its Sunday-morning-parking info into single-yellow-line areas, meters, and available parking lots, located on such fittingly named streets as Seething Lane, Savage Gardens, and Finsbury Circus.
• There is a Web site dedicated to collecting antique parking meters (bright.net/~impala1), with such offerings as original Magee-Hale Park-O-Meters. "Everyone is amazed at how wonderful they are to own," the site proclaims. Prices start at $90.
• It might come as a surprise to some that there are heavy-hitting professional organizations "dedicated to providing information, educational opportunities and support to the Parking Profession," as the New Jersey Parking Institute (www.njparkinginst.com/default.htm), a division of the New Jersey Association of Parking Authorities and Agencies, puts it. The institute is "a professional association of Parking Administrators, Commissioners, Vendors and Consultants." Its 35th annual meeting was held last November in Atlantic City, "to plan, promote, and develop procedures and legislation, for the betterment of parking in the State of New Jersey."
• Internationally, there’s the International Parking Institute (www.parking.org), which held its 2003 international conference last March in Houston. And on May 18, it held the International Parking Conference and Exposition in Long Beach, California, billed as "the world’s largest parking show."
The date was July 16, 1935. Carl Magee was the man. Oklahoma City was the place.
Magee was a newspaper reporter and president of the Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. The avowed purpose of his new invention — the parking meter — was to encourage turnover in parking spaces adjacent to downtown businesses.
Problem was, it was the height of the Great Depression. Hardly anybody was shopping for anything. Henry Ford was buying back Model Ts and crushing them for scrap to rejuvenate the market for newer models. Cars in general were relatively scarce. The money to pay for gas to run them was scarcer still.
What, then, was Magee thinking?
Could it be, considering his position in the Chamber of Commerce, that his real intention had been to create a new and surreptitious source of revenue for his hometown? Not to mention making himself a whole big bunch of change, since he patented his "coin-controlled parking meter" two months prior to the installation of 150 meters on the streets of OK City?
As an Oklahoman of that period might have said: well, shucks.
Whether YOU live in Boston or you just visit from time to time, a kind of parker’s Zen will overcome you. Compelled to focus on a single, all-consuming thought, you’ll begin to scan the landscape for someplace to put your car once you’ve actually managed to negotiate the Hub’s nerve-racking, idiosyncratically tow-zoned, Big Dig–snarled streets.
If you do manage to find a space anywhere near your destination, this good fortune inevitably transmogrifies into a more extreme form of anxiety:
Oh, jeez, lemme check — do I have enough quarters on me?
Do I have any quarters?
This isn’t a 15-minute meter, is it?
A space in a parking garage around here goes for 28 bucks for two hours.
What if my appointment ends up running over? By only five minutes. Ten. All right, a whole hour.
Why can’t it be raining? Hailing? Hot enough to fry eggs on the sidewalk? Anything that’ll keep the parking cops holed up in their favorite doughnut shop and off the streets?
"I usually keep at least 15 quarters in the car," says Brian Galford of Sharon. "Enough for [several] hours on the meter."
As a self-employed video producer, Galford has to make frequent visits to some of Boston’s busiest areas at all hours; his shoots can last for one hour or as long as 12, and he is no stranger to parker’s anxiety.
"There’s a map in my head of possible parking places," he says. Sometimes he takes advantage of some free on-street spaces he knows about (sorry — he won’t tell where they are). Or he may be able to make use of a row of 10-hour meters he’s sussed out in Brookline, and then take the T the rest of the way. Other times he repeatedly feeds Boston’s two-hour meters, even though he knows the practice is illegal, willing to take the risk and sweat out the possibility of a ticket.
Under these circumstances, "it’s genuine relief, going to the car and finding the windshield empty," Galford says. Always, his goal is to get free parking, or to pay as little as possible for a space — not because he likes playing a game with the city, but because he has a wife and two daughters to support, and it’s not unusual for him to wait weeks before getting paid for his work.
The tens of thousands of college and university students who drive in Boston each day are also caught up in this hardscrabble search for a cheap place — or any place — to put their cars. With many counting pennies to pay for higher education, there isn’t a lot of spare change to spend on parking. And with commercial parking garages charging anywhere from $10 to $28 for a half-day, and limited student parking spaces at the individual institutions, street parking is always coveted.
"If I drive to school, I start getting ready the day before," says Eyda Thomas, 26, a Worcester resident and student at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, in the congested Longwood medical area; the school isn’t able to provide on-campus parking to its students. "I go to the bank and get quarters. I have an idea ahead of time, depending upon the semester and when I need to be in class, where I should look for a meter." If she’s out of luck and has to park in a garage, there’s one three T stops away from MCPHS that charges "only" $10 for five hours.
Topping off the endless game of parking roulette played out daily across the city is the all-too-frequent dilemma of an out-of-order meter.
According to statistics supplied by the Boston Transportation Department (BTD) for the 12-month reporting period of June 1, 2002 through May 31, 2003, the 6951 BTD meters in service on average were out of order 139,739 times. In other words, each meter was nonworking an average of 20 times during the course of the year.
To some people, finding an out-of-order meter is a reason for celebration: it means free parking for the rest of the day, right? Wrong. A disabled meter is, by Boston city statute, an illegal parking space, and you’re subject to ticketing if a parking-enforcement officer decides to nail you. Most don’t, considering the overall shortage of legal meter spaces on a good day — particularly since, according to the BTD, over 2500 or so meters are vandalized each week. But even if you are allowed to park at a dead meter, you’re entitled only to the maximum purchase time available on it — usually two hours. Further complicating the issue, a new policy was established earlier this year whereby meters in what BTD considers "high vandalism" areas have been marked with stickers letting parkers know that they may or may not be allowed a maximum of a single hour at a disabled meter — once again at the discretion of the parking-enforcement officer. The reason for the new limitations, says Dan Hoffman, deputy commissioner for field operations at the BTD, is that the BTD believes it removes the "economic incentive" for intentionally disabling a meter, since vandals can get only one free hour if they decide to put a paper clip or a piece of paper in the slot instead of the required coins.
there is good reason for parkers to fear being blamed for an out-of-order meter. The meters used in Boston — "constructed of ductile iron, which in the industry is considered the most vandal-resistant material available in this application," according to their maker, Nova Scotia’s J.J. MacKay Canada Limited — can be rendered unusable by something as mundane as a sliver of paper.
The BTD grew so concerned about what it viewed as a rampant wave of meter vandalism that in 1999 it created a special Boston police/BTD "Strike Force" to combat vandals who were breaking meters in certain neighborhoods. Comprising two Boston police officers and up to seven BTD maintenance workers, the Strike Force would move into an area, fix any broken meters, and then conduct a stakeout to catch vandals in the act. From its inception until its quiet dissolution this summer, the Strike Force concentrated on the Boston University campus area, including Kenmore Square; Chinatown, close to Tufts University; Huntington Avenue near Northeastern University; and — particularly during this past year — the Newbury/Boylston Street retail district.
The BTD’s Dan Hoffman maintains that the Strike Force’s efforts were a resounding success. Indeed, huge increases in the number of working meters were claimed during the Strike Force’s tenure: 136 percent for Huntington Avenue and Tremont Street; 124 percent for the BU Bridge area; 65.7 percent for the Kneeland Street and Harrison Avenue area; 53.4 percent for Kenmore Square; 16.7 percent for Newbury/Gloucester Street.
Yet of the 139,739 meter outages during the Strike Force's last year of operation, according to the BTD, 95.1 percent were due to vandalism: 132,870, or about 11,072 per month. And during the Strike Force's entire four-year tenure, only 11 meter miscreants were arrested and convicted.
"The Strike Force had other duties beside parking enforcement," Hoffman explains. "It takes a long time to catch somebody — they have to sit there for a long time and actually watch them vandalizing a meter. When somebody is caught, it causes a disturbance, and the people around notice and an example is made."
The bottom line, Hoffman believes, is that the 132,870 outages attributed to vandals by the BTD during the Strike Force’s last year represent a demonstrable improvement over the past.
DR. DOMENIC SCRENCI is something of an authority on the Boston parking situation. Raised in East Boston and now settled in Charlestown, he was a city boy from day one. "You can’t grow up in Boston, visit, or work here without parking meters taking up a big part of your life," he says.
Since Screnci first got behind the wheel of a car as a teenager, decades ago, he has belonged to the club of neighborhood folks who must contend with the dismal reality of too few parking spaces on their streets. He is "acutely aware" of the burden of having to feed a meter.
"[The BTD tries] to demonize the Boston parker, but from the notes [parkers] leave behind, you can see that they want to do the right thing," says Screnci, who collected many of these notes as a part of a doctoral project in quantitative analysis of the dilemma plaguing motorists in Boston. The messages reflect parkers’ desperate and sometimes comical struggles to explain their predicament to their potential ticketers:
Meter Reader: Please check — I put my money in and it didn’t register. Thanks! (Charles Street retail district)
I have tried to put money in this meter. But it is broken. Thankx. Sandy. (Boston Medical Center area; written on Advil notepaper)
Meter doesn’t work. If here at 4 p.m. will give money. (Kenmore Square)
Broken meter. (Copley Square; written on Ritz-Carlton letterhead.)
Meter Person — this is broken please don’t ticket me — enclosed is a quarter. Thanks. (Kenmore Square; written on small envelope containing a quarter.)
Parkers plead for understanding. They swear they found the meter out of order and didn’t tamper with it. They sometimes demand justice and refuse to pay any ticket given. They even give an address or phone number where they can be contacted, should the parking-enforcement officer want to discuss the situation with them. Notes have been written on valentines, deposit slips, band-aids, paper napkins. Or — for the truly prepared — on preprinted, stick-on labels, such as the one that read METER MAID — THIS METER IS NOT IN WORKING ORDER. AN ATTEMPT WAS MADE TO USE IT TO NO AVAIL. THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATIONS ... (State Street Financial District.)
In extreme cases, messages have been written directly on the meter housing. Such notes have appeared in Magic Marker, in lipstick, scratched into the finish with a key, even in pink nail polish:
Not working. Put 8 quarters. Only takes one quart. (Brookline Avenue/Simmons College area.)
Driven by sympathy for the Boston parker, Screnci decided to devote more than a year of his life to the study of how people deal with a broken meter. He took pictures, conducted interviews, and collected notes. In the end, he came to the conclusion that most people are basically honest and well-meaning and don’t set out at the beginning of the day to break the first parking meter they come to. Instead, he has another theory.
"In high-traffic areas, like BU and elsewhere, they just don’t empty the meters often enough, and so they go out of order, and then people get a ticket," Screnci says. And, after looking over the figures provided by the BTD, his contention seems to have some basis.
According to James Mansfield, director of community and intergovernmental affairs for the BTD, parking-meter revenue and enforcement are "just a small part of what we do" — along with working with the Boston Redevelopment Corporation, the EPA, and other agencies that assign, create, and limit parking in the city. But parking-meter and -ticket revenues are quite obviously the department’s cash cow.
Consider this: the $8,574,240 in meter revenue and $11,201,029 in fees from 437,209 meter-violation tickets collected in 2002 account for the majority of the BTD’s $28,468,557 current yearly operating budget.
Of the 486 members of the BTD staff, 163 are devoted to parking-meter collections, enforcement, and repair. While 146 of these personnel are parking-enforcement officers, only 10 are actually charged with collecting coins from meters, and only seven are assigned to repairs.
Maintenance workers, says Dan Hoffman, are trained to use a handheld device to enter the reasons for meter outages. There is no incentive, he insists, for maintenance personnel to misrepresent the cause of an outage. And yet, among the various codes that can be punched into the device — including "Code 31: Cleared a foreign object" — there is no code for the simple "Meter out of order because it was full." As a result, Code 31 seems to be a catchall that may be creating 132,870 additional reasons a year for an officer to write a pricey ticket, even if the parker has done nothing to deserve it.
Carl Magee has long since made his money and disappeared into the shadows of history, but his legacy remains. He made the average motorist a little poorer. A little more stressed. And a whole lot more "ticketable." By now, surely, he has taken up a well-deserved place among the pantheon of those who have done their utmost to make daily urban living more complicated and exasperating than ever was necessary or intended.
Enjoy your time in eternity, Carl. A really pissed-off city salutes you.
Marty D. Wolfand can be reached at email@example.com