After cars became a mainstream item during the 1920s and 30s, their number went up steadily. Of course, the needed number of streets, highways and parking spaces went up at the same rate. This created a whole new challenge.

When city centers became too crowded to allow all the area’s cars to cruise freely and stop wherever, there was a shift in parking. Just like in any other industry, when demand gets higher than supply, a price is introduced in order to regulate the distribution. This is exactly what happened: enter paid parking.

Metered parking came regulate the scarce supply of parking spaces

To have paid parking meant that there needed to be a way to collect those payments. At the same time, business was suffering from workers leaving their cars by the sidewalk, so a way to regulate the time of parking was also in order. The great invention of the parking meter brought time control and payment collection together. The first of many was set up in Oklahoma city center in July 1935.

Although car drivers were not entirely happy with the change (they felt like they were punished for owning a car), they had to get used to it because they had no choice if they wanted to keep parking. And cities were of course content with the new-found revenue.

The phenomenon spread fast, and by the beginning of the 1940s there were already over 140 000 parking meters at work around the country. The invention came to stay for decades to come.

Parking enforcement was needed to make sure people pay

Of course, the next logical move was to start monitoring who paid and who didn’t. So, not long after parking meters appeared, motorists were introduced to parking enforcement officers – also known as meter maids and some very unflattering terms which reveal the level of endearment people had towards them. Not surprising, considering the fact that seeing a parking officer meant that you had either a) already paid for your parking b) about to pay hard for not paying before.

This created yet another, albeit controversial revenue source for cities: parking tickets.

Gradual progress: Pay-and-display, cashless, mobile parking

From the beginning of the paid parking era, there have thus been two eternal things to solve: how to make parking payments easier, and how to make parking enforcement easier. And there have been many attempts to solve it. 

First, paid parking worked like this: you park your car into a vacant slot that has it’s own meter. You enter change into the meter, and it shows how long you can stay for with that amount. Parking enforcement can check your parking status from the meter, and fine you if you run out of money before cruising off.

Cool system, but actually quite laborious. Having a parking meter at each space meant setting up a huge amount of the machines to get an area covered – not to mention the whole city. This problem was figured out early on, and throughout the years different ways of solving it followed, the biggest of which were:

  • Pay-and-display was introduced. This meant that single-space meters were no longer necessary. The receipt of payment could be displayed on the windshield of the car telling enforcement that payment had been made.
  • Coin-operated machines started accepting payment cards. This meant that people no longer needed to carry change around to pay for parking.
  • At the change of the millennium, mobile payment brought on SMS and IVR payments. That meant sending a text message, or calling a service number to pay for parking, so instead of cash or card, you needed your phone.

With all of these the effort remained pretty much the same: going to the meter, checking the information on the meter, making the payment, waiting for confirmation. The meter, or information pillar, or machine remained a key component of the parking process throughout all the developments – a surprising trooper in the fast-changing city landscape.

So, although the function has changed from mechanical to electronic and single to multi-space throughout the years along, parking meter is still today a familiar feature in the city landscape.

Parking meter stayed – but what’s next?

The situation parking is in right now is pretty much the following: parking industry is still largely dependent on hardware, but there are two things that are defining the future: growing volume of demand, and the possibilities opened up by technology.

Cities grow, more and more parking needs to be handled, and it’s getting increasingly hard to do that with the traditional means that take time and money. At the same time, evolving tech has the tools to manage data and automate processes in ways that have never been possible before.

The final part of the parking history series brings us to where we are now, and more importantly, what lies ahead in the future of parking.

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Main photo by “Josh Newton” from Unsplash/CC