When Businesses Wanted Higher Parking Rates

Amanda Erickson’s brief history of the parking meter is fascinating, not least because it illustrates a point that many business owners and public officials misunderstand today: low turnover of parking spaces is bad for business.

What was once the transportation mode for the rich has become de rigueur for the masses. Streets meant for horse and buggy now needed to transport hundreds of cars to and from work every day. Then, of course, there was the question of parking. By the 1920s, downtown shop owners had begun to complain in earnest about the parked cars left by workers during the day.

Without proper infrastructure, shoppers had no place to stop; as a result, business was dropping rapidly.

This was a problem in cities across America. But no place was quite so innovative as Oklahoma City.

There, storekeepers turned to newspaperman Carl C. Magee (who, we should note, is also famous for uncovering the Teapot Dome Scandal in New Mexico and shooting a corrupt judge in a fight in Las Vegas). Magee had his own ideas, but he also sponsored a contest calling for designs of a timing device that would allocate set amounts of time for parking. The winner – the Black Maria – was based on a machine created by Magee and Gerald A. Hale. Hale and Magee formed the Magee-Hale Park-O-Meter Company. The first meter was installed on the southeast corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue on July 16, 1935.

The totally mechanical devices required a nickel each hour and were placed at 20-foot intervals along the curb, on the spaces painted on the pavement.

Like most parking decisions, this one stirred up controversy from the start. Drivers were outraged, calling the meters a tax on their right to own vehicles. But they parked at the metered spots anyway because it was where they could find a spot.

Soon, it was difficult to find a spot without meters. Storekeepers clamored for them, and city officials were none-too-disappointed by the extra revenue.

Of course it’s also possible to set meter rates too high. In fact, it’s a certainty that your city’s meter rates will be too high at some point in the day, if the price is the same all day, and if the price is the same for very busy areas and less busy areas.

How you know prices are too high is if you consistently see 3 or more metered spaces open on relatively busy blocks during regular business hours. If meters are the right price, there will always be about one or two spaces open on every block.

To avoid mispricing meters and hurting business, the political authorities should choose a *vacancy rate* not the meter price. Make city council or the Parking Authority Director choose a vacancy rate (80-90%), and then let the electronic parking meters’ algorithm set prices, block by block, to achieve that rate. That way, residents can’t get mad at politicians over parking prices. They can argue for a lower parking vacancy rate if they want to pay lower prices on average, but at least this would clarify the trade-off between parking prices and parking availability.

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