A short, unfriendly history of the parking meter

Baltimore Glimpses

June 22, 1993|By GILBERT SANDLER

THE demon parking meter is ever there -- to taunt, challenge, intimidate.

It is inherently user-unfriendly. If you have dimes and nickels in your pocket, it takes only quarters. If you have change enough for 45 minutes, you need change for an hour, and it's Murphy's Law that the meter maid comes by after 50 minutes. Often enough, the thing is broken, leaving you with the dilemma: to go look for another meter or to leave a note for the meter maid, who usually isn't sympathetic. Going to court, even if you have been wronged, is a pain in the posterior, and the authorities count on your paying up meekly to avoid the hassle.

Then there's the knowledge that most meters aren't there for public safety but rather to produce revenue, and this makes the getting of a ticket particularly painful. A speeding ticket results from your unsafe behavior; a parking ticket is designed only to enrich the jurisdiction that issued it.

The meter is a relatively new phenomenon, first introduced in Oklahoma City in 1935 and in Baltimore two years later. It didn't become a major factor downtown until 1955, when it was promoted by Henry Barnes, the city's notorious traffic planner of the 1950s.

Barnes wasn't a financial expert; traffic control was his game. Reportedly, he never saw the meter as the revenue source it is today but rather as a means to provide additional parking so that driving downtown would be more inviting. He maintained that some people were parking in one spot all day long. The meter, he felt, would shoosh the squatters away, making more parking spaces available. "Baltimore remains the only major city that I know without parking meters," he said.

Actually, Barnes was a latecomer. The meter had been #i introduced in late-Depression days with an elaborate curbside ceremony. Newspaper pictures showed a citizen (female) putting a nickel in a newly installed meter. (A nickel got you an hour.) "While you're gone," the story explained, "the meter stands guard against any ticket-minded officer. When you come back, there can't be any argument." (If your blood pressure is rising, have a cool drink before proceeding.)

In 1938, the ordinance requesting 56 meters came before Mayor Howard Jackson. Fifty-six meters! The opposition to it was so vociferous (mostly from the Police Department and the American Automobile Association) that the mayor let the ordinance die. But the hungry genie was out of the bottle. Every year there was pressure to get on with meter installation and put Baltimore in the 20th century.

Thus, in 1954, Barnes requested 1,177 meters: 12-minute, 24-minute, one and two hours. Parking would cost 1 cent for each 12 minutes. The bill was signed into law on March 5, 1955.

Today there are 11,700 of the things, many of them bearing advertisements. Paul Davis, city parking administrative manager, says revenue in the fiscal year ending last July was $5.3 million.

And Baltimore is in the 20th century.

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