Monday, April 21, 2014


In cities from Chicago to Austin to Berkeley, old-style mechanical parking meters are rapidly being replaced by a new type known as a multi-space meter. If your town doesn’t have them yet, you’ll be getting them soon enough. But unless you work for your city government, you may not find this much cause to celebrate.

Cities like to bill the new multi-space units as being more convenient for consumers, but experience proves otherwise. To park in a multi-space meter zone, you walk from your car to the meter, which can be some distance down the block. Once there, you buy a paper permit imprinted with the expiration time. Then you go back to your car to put the permit in the windshield, and finally go on your merry way.

Other than offering the dubious advantage of paying with a credit card, the added rigamarole involved in using multi-space meters makes it plain that any increase in convenience accrues to city parking departments and not to the public. 
For one, multi-space meters can serve up to ten parking spaces, so there are fewer units to service--an apparent advantage despite a cost of roughly $10,000 each. But for city governments, the real cachet of these new units is that they can rake in a lot more money per parking spaces than the old-style meters ever could. Here’s why:  

Suppose Suzy Doakes has an errand to run and parks in a space served by a multi-space meter. Like most of us, she doesn’t want to risk a parking ticket, so she buys forty minutes worth of time just in case. Happily, her errand only takes her twenty minutes, and then she returns to her car and drives off. 

Now, in the old days, the next person who parked in Suzy’s space could “piggyback” on her leftover time. The new multi-space meters have managed to stamp out this tiny joy of urban life. Why? Because when Suzy drives off, her parking permit--and the extra twenty minutes she’s already paid for--go with her. The next person to arrive has to pay for the same twenty minutes a second time. 

Hence, while old style meters could never take in more than 100 percent of the posted hourly parking rate, multi-space meters can actually take in multiples of the posted rate. How much more? A recent article on the installation of 31 new multi-space meters in Berkeley, California reveals that meter revenue increased nearly 300 percent, allowing the manager of the city’s parking service to rather nonchalantly conclude, ”They have far exceeded our projections."

Given this neat ability to double down on parking fees, cities across the country are scrambling to replace their old meters with multi-space units. Granted, in these difficult days, it’s tough to begrudge cities an additional source of income. What’s more, from an environmental perspective, it may not be a bad thing to make driving even more of a headache than it already is. But please, city officials--don’t try to tell us that this change is being made for our convenience. People who actually use these machines might not agree. When Chicago recently began replacing its old parking meters with multi-space units, for example, one driver offered the New York Times his candid opinion:

“I hate them,” he said. “It’s just another ridiculous way to squeeze us.”

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