by Bob Blake

Las Vegas has slot machines – the “One Arm Bandits:” Municipalities haveNo Arm Bandits” – the parking meter! If you drive a car…you must ultimately find a place to park it! It took over 35 years for cities to conclude this simple fact… AND how to grab some money from it! These time clocks on metal poles first appeared in the mid-1930s.

Holger George Thuesen and Gerald A. Hale, engineering professors at Oklahoma State University, designed the first working parking meter and comically named it the “Black Maria.” These mechanical coin eaters began scooping up money along Oklahoma City streets on July 16, 1935. Their rather simple design had few changes over forty years. Hey, don’t argue with a successful money trap!

The parking timer is a simple clock that starts with insertion of a coin. When the metered time expires, the nasty red flag says…“ticket time!”

Before meters, some cities used patrolling policemen armed with a chalk-laden wooden stick.  They marked the tires of parked cars as they patrolled their beat. When they returned two hours later, those unmoved chalked cars received a pink parking citation.

Over the years, the lowly parking meter has stood in court multiple times. Irate citizens questioned why they should pay to park on a street their taxes built and maintained! To their dismay, the courts have ruled that free use of the streets is not an absolute right. The North Carolina Supreme Court however, has restricted cities from pledging their “meter money” as security for bonds to build off-street parking decks.

Most police officers consider issuing parking tickets demeaning work – hence the advent of “Meter Maids” when New York City hired their first female team in 1960.

The advent of electronics, printed circuits and digital technology replaced the cantankerous clicking clocks. People now swipe plastic rather than dig for change. Many of these new meters use solar power to energize the electronics.

The spaces, about 400 square feet a piece, are steady and lucrative revenue streams with staggering numbers. Assume a city has 500 spaces occupied for 18 hours per day that rent for $3.00/hour. Simple math shows these slots generate $27,000 per day! This is why cities welcome this low maintenance source of revenue. This does not count their take from fines and towing!

A few years ago, Washington, D.C., set an all-time record of issuing 1.6 million parking tickets AND collected $92.6 million for their efforts. Currently fines alone generate an average of $370,000 each business day! But…the story gets better. In addition to parking fines, the District also brought in $40 million/year from its network of 17,000 meters. This silent parking business earned over $132.6 million/year.

Some cities desire “money up front” and grant multi-year private leases to companies. Chicago recently sold 75 years of meter revenue for FIVE BILLION dollars. The quarters – and now dollars – plunked into those silent bandits sure add up!