Magazine

Looking Back at Parking: 80 Years Makes a Difference

Melissa Bean Sterzick

Parking in 2008 won’t be much different from parking in 2007, but what if we compared today’s trends with 1930?
Drivers back then had more to worry about than finding parking. They faced a gamut of other obstacles, including unpaved roads, unpredictable engines and tires, limited access to gasoline, and angry horse-and-buggy drivers. Not to mention they drove under conditions of complete anarchy without the benefit of airbags.
Once the average American family could afford a car and traffic safety laws were put into effect, parking became a bigger and bigger issue. Cars crowded city streets parking willy-nilly, and orderly downtown districts began to address the mayhem with meters, machines and monitoring.
The ‘30s was a decade marked by major parking innovations. According to its website, POM Inc. is the originator of metered parking, having installed the country’s first parking meter in Oklahoma City on July 16, 1935. I guess we can thank POM for turning our ash trays into piggy banks and blame it for those many moments of angry desperation when the meter was empty and so were our pockets.
From what I read in Parking Today, the meter is very widely used, but on the brink of oblivion as cell phone technology makes virtual payment more applicable and attractive. However, in my day-to-day life, digging for change and locating a cell phone at the bottom of my purse are pretty similar experiences – equally frustrating and equally likely to be unsuccessful. But that’s just me. Until I have a microchip implanted in my fingertip, I will inevitably spend an hour a day ransacking my handbag for one of many essential and nonessential items, including several that are required for parking.
The Westinghouse Parking Machine was developed in the early 1930s, offering vertical parking “at the touch of a button,” according to a 1932 issue of The Tech, the official undergraduate news organ of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s just as simple as that: no bother, no worry, no fuss. Of course, it will be a long while before such machines remove sufficient parked automobiles from the streets to appreciably relieve traffic congestion, especially since automatic parking is not free.”
Vertical parking is still happening and technology is improving, but parking garages are the closest to vertical most of us get in a car these days (unless we are unfortunate enough to flip our top-heavy SUV). At the garage, we touch a button and the only thing that happens is a little white ticket pops out of a giant timer and the gate arm creaks up slowly. Our car is not miraculously parked for us; we still have to wander through the structure leaving our trail of breadcrumbs behind.
If only parking could be reduced to an experience devoid of bother, worry or fuss, but that seems unlikely. Today, “parking at the touch of a button” sounds like some crazy, silly notion from the Jetsons. It probably sounded very sincere in 1932.
The truth is, there might be plenty of parking out there, but finding it will always be a bother. Meters need change (or cell phones with charged batteries); pay-and-display machines need credit cards or cash and then we must pay and display; valet parking makes us feel cheap or extravagant, and requires cash and an uneasy trust as we watch our car drive away without us; and even free parking takes time and energy to get in to.
Overall, I’d say parking is still the bother it was nearly 80 years ago. We still circle for the best spot; we still hate to pay for parking; and we still feel as if other drivers are maniacs and we are completely sane.
The difference today is that we are all a bunch of spoiled babies driving around under pretty cushy conditions, constantly complaining as we go. Our cars are safer; our laws are practical and maximize our safety when we follow them; and parking is as cheap, plentiful and as convenient as it could possibly be.
I’m glad I’m driving and parking nowadays and not some 80 years ago. I know what a deer can do to a fast-moving vehicle – I’d hate to find out what a horse could do.

Melissa Bean Sterzick is a PT columnist and critic of parking life. She can be reached at Melissa@parkingtoday.com

Article Abstract from February, 2008




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