Time's expiring

Half of the metallic tattletales near extinction as Baltimore moves to replace them with high-tech pay stations that accept coins and credit cards

September 21, 2005|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

In 1935, frustration met ingenuity in Oklahoma City.

The result? The "park-o-meter," a coin-hungry device intended to stop people from hogging all the prime downtown parking. Not quite 40 free parking years after the advent of the automobile, the jig was up.

The world's first parking meters hit the streets in July of that year. By August, someone had the honor of the first ticket, and immediately thereafter came the first lame excuse - the ticketed preacher was just running into a store to get change.

Save it for traffic court, buddy.

Seventy years later, the public has yet to warm to parking meters, a municipal tool most people regard as little more than metallic tattletales.

When Baltimore officials announced that they would soon yank half the city's meters to make way for "pay stations," more tech-savvy machines that take credit cards, if anyone cried in protest, they did it very softly.

Peter Little, executive director of Baltimore's Parking Authority, said he did field e-mails and calls from people - not upset people - just folks who have some ideas on what to do with the retired equipment.

"Throw 'em away and forget 'em" was one such brainstorm, Little said.

Where are the preservationists here? The antiques collectors? The people who get all shivery to think about the evolution of the modern city? Don't they care that one of the most iconic images of the modern age, something that has a spot in the Smithsonian, is about to be replaced by things that look like ATMs?

In a word: nope.

Charles Duff, executive director of the Midtown Development Corporation, as passionate a person about Baltimore history as you'll find, is giddy over the new machines. Not only can he pay with plastic, the system will allow more cars to park on a street.

"Even nostalgic diehard preservationists like Charlie Duff are eager to turn in the old-style meters," he says laughing. He calls the old meters "ugly pieces of street furniture."

"We're winning," Duff adds. "This is one small step for parkingkind."

Johns Hopkins, the leader of Baltimore Heritage, a group that regularly throws its weight into preservation battles, was hard-pressed to muster some fire on behalf of old meters.

"They take your money," he says. "That's a hard thing to overcome. ... I'm not sure we'd be out on the picket lines to `Save the Parking Meter.'"

A quick love affair

A UCLA urban planning professor's book, The High Cost of Free Parking, includes some history about the first parking meter and how most American cities quickly embraced the device.

But after that initial reception, Donald Shoup says, America promptly set about ignoring meters for the next series of decades. Which is why, until recently, parking meters have looked and cost about the same as they did at their debut.

Europe, which long ago tossed meters for pay stations, is setting the pace, he says, adding, "America has been incredibly slow to adapt."

In their infancy, parking meters were gasp-worthy technology, Shoup says. People would come downtown just to watch them, the way they'd watch airplanes take off from the airport.

Sometimes, befuddled sidewalk strollers would drop a coin into the slot and wait for gum to fall out.

But the "oohs" and "aahs" have long since hushed, says Shoup, a big pay station advocate. He ticks off their attributes: less street clutter; harder to break into or vandalize; easier for a city to keep computerized records; and more difficult for a wayward collector to pocket the proceeds.

Shoup will save his nostalgia for something worthier.

"Maybe if they'd take overhead wires down, we would feel nostalgic about that, too?" he asks sarcastically. "It would be a mistake to think there's anything superior about a conventional meter except that we're used to them."

Though parking meters might be hard to love, some people manage.

The pros of meters

At POM, an Arkansas company that grew from the manufacturer of the original park-o-meter (that's what the company name stands for), workers can instantly provide a 10-point list of reasons why meters beat pay stations. And another five reasons why pay stations are problematic.

No. 1 on that list: You have to be smarter to use them.

Just as people mistook the original park-o-meters for gumball machines, some now assume the pay stations are bank machines. Oops.

A Canadian company has designed a pay station to end such doubts - it mimics the look of an old-fashioned meter. They call the model "Luke." Mike Rodger, vice president of marketing for Digital Payment Technologies Corp., loves explaining why.

In the movie Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman memorably bashes the heads off parking meters, landing himself in jail.

Though the movie features someone mindlessly ruining its product, the meter industry loves that the movie marks the rare occasion when "parking meters" and "cool" can be uttered in the same breath.

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