We’ve all seen them, but where did they originate and who designed them? Let’s go back to where it all began, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in the 1920’s and 1930’s. When cars were no longer a transportation mode only for the rich, streets meant for horse and buggy now needed to transport hundreds of cars to and from work every day. During this time there was no such thing as regulated parking, people would park their cars in the streets and leave them there for any amount of time until they needed them again. In shopping areas, most of the parking spaces became occupied by employees who worked downtown, leaving no room for potential customers. Traffic congestion problems were common in big cities, businesses were hurting and soon people started to think about a way to regulate parking.
In Oklahoma City a newspaperman named Carl C. Magee had his own idea about a machine which we now know as the parking meter. He also sponsored a contest calling for designs of a timing device that would allocate set amounts of time for parking. This was a challenge since the machine had to be operative in all kinds of weather, be vandalism-proof and cost-efficient. The winner “the Black Maria” was based on a machine created by Magee and Gerald A. Hale (an engineering graduate). Hale and Magee formed the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company. The first meter was installed on July 16, 1935 at the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The totally mechanical devices required a nickel each hour and were placed at 20-foot intervals along the curb at spaces painted on the pavement.
Like most parking regulations, this one stirred up controversy from the start. Most people didn’t care for the idea of paying for parking spaces that were usually free. Drivers were outraged, calling the meters a tax on their right to own vehicles. Soon after the meters were installed, people in Oklahoma City noticed that the traffic flow improved, congestion reduced and soon it was difficult to find a spot that wasn’t metered. Storeowners were happy that their patrons had places to park and city officials enjoyed the extra revenue. Word of the parking meter began to spread across the country fast. By the early 1940s, there were more than 140,000 parking meters in operation across the U.S. By 1944, American cities were generating some $10 million annually from parking.
There was little variation in parking meter design until the 1980s. In the 1980s, the parking meter began to make some technological advances. At first, the shift was from mechanical machines to battery-operated systems. New York began making the shift to the battery-operated systems in 1995. But slowly, flashier models came into existence. Computerized multi-space meters incorporate on-screen instructions and credit card acceptors – no more coin jams. More recently, Washington, D.C., installed solar panel machines. Some systems even let you pay ahead of time from your cell phone. Today, there is an estimated five million parking meters of various forms in the United States.