In these high-tech times...

Do Cities Still Use Parking Meters?'

Whenever I tell someone in my hometown that I sell parking meters, I'm often asked: "Do any cities still use parking meters?" Obviously, I live in one of those small towns with no real downtown parking problem because they don't have much downtown. They took out their meters years ago because they thought the meters were driving away shoppers, when, in fact, the shoppers were looking for lower prices for shoes, jewelry, and office supplies. If I could pay Wal-Mart prices downtown while parking right in front of the store, I'd be glad to pay a parking meter!
Parking meters were the first means by which parking could be timed, taxed, and enforced. They were invented to provide parking turnover and increase business flow into shops and restaurants. They did their job well, and I know of no thriving city today without some sort of paid parking system, both on- and off-street.
We're starting to see cities venture into (and sometimes back out of) pay-and-display systems. A few have tried in-car meters and voucher systems, and now there is pay-by-cell phone. But the parking meter is a solid tradition in this country, and exports have never been better as well.
Why, you ask? The parking meter today is easier to use and easier to understand than ever before. Once one had to insert a coin into its proper slot and turn a handle -- now there's one slot and no handle. The digital countdown leaves no doubt as to the amount of remaining time for a specific parking space. Maintenance is a shadow of what it once was.
Limited downtime
Downtime for a parking meter has only a fraction of the impact on revenue as that of pay-and-display downtime. When a pay-and-display machine malfunctions, the whole parking lot must be closed off, the revenue abandoned, the motorists must walk farther to find another machine (if one is available), or an alternate payment method must be quickly arranged. When a parking meter malfunctions, the motorist simply goes to the nearest empty space.
Break-in theft is a major issue addressed by pay-and-display and meter manufacturers. However, a thief expends much less time and energy breaking into one coin box as opposed to hundreds of meters to retrieve the same amount of results.
Enforcement is probably the most vital element of a successful paid-parking system. Ask yourself, is it easier to drive by checking for red flags that face the street, or to get out and walk to each vehicle and read a paper tape on the dash? How easy would it be to make one's own parking receipts with a PC, scanner, and simple graphics editor?
An article in December in the Topeka Capital-Journal tells of that city's discussions regarding putting parking meters back into an area of the city versus pay-and-display. City councilman Harold Lane was said to favor traditional meters and was quoted as saying, "To me, the meters don't look all that bad. They're not all that noticeable, anyway."
In fact, parking meters can actually compliment a downtown scheme. Several companies now offer nostalgic pole covers and bases for meters in colors and patterns to match old-time streetlights and sidewalk furniture.
The steadfast parking meter has actually been moving quite forward. Its evolution from mechanical to electronic has allowed the introduction of features that make them much more manageable and user friendly.
Parking meters now accept smartcards, which provide convenience for motorists and up-front revenue, earning interest for the city. Reduced coins on the street results in less frequent collection and related costs, and reduced attraction for thieves and vandals -- imagine smartcard-only meters. Also imagine reinserting your smartcard to retrieve a refund for leftover parking time. Authorized collections personnel may also use a smartcard to enable the proper vault key to open the meter vault.
No more cruising
Dreams of self-zeroing meters have given birth to accessory companies that provide vehicle-sensing systems and networks whereby meters can also provide instant free time, reject meter feeding and provide occupancy data. Meters with vehicle sensors can prohibit "cruising for free time" and increase revenue, provide greater public acceptance through increased parking turnover, and increase management's ability to set optimum rate zones.
Parking meter manufacturers are not blind to the benefits of multi-space meters. Two- to eight-space meters are available to reduce the number of poles on the sidewalk, while keeping walking distance and user confusion to a minimum. The impact of downtime on revenue is still kept to a minimum compared to that of a machine metering 100 to 200 spaces. However, spotting a special rate within a block (i.e. handicap parking, loading zone, etc.) is most easily done with a single-space meter.
Long ago, parking meters merely encouraged parking turnover and provided all or part of the cost of their maintenance. Today, parking meters contribute significantly to many cities' general funds. Budget crunches since September 11, 2001, make revenue-generating products such as parking meters more attractive than ever.
As an example, if a basic single-space meter earns $72 per month, it will pay for itself by Month 5, and the extra $504 it earns by yearend can go toward department expenses and revenue. (This assumes a rate of 50c per hour, eight hours per day, six days per week, 75 percent occupancy). Meters bought on lease-purchase with delayed first payment actually generate positive cash flow from the day they're first installed.
Parking meters have come a long way, and their ongoing development is geared toward providing maximum efficiency, revenue, manageability and public acceptance. That and the ultimate success of a parking system are no doubt remembered at the polls. Remember: parking meters "pay their own way" and they always have -- so don't sell them short.

Bobra Wilbanks is Technical Sales Manager for POM Inc.,
a major manufacturer of parking meters. She can be reached

Article Abstract from February, 2003

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