What is a Parking Meter?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A parking meter is a device used for traffic enforcement. When a motorist parks in a parking space governed by a parking meter, he or she must pay to park there. Typically, a parking meter is capped, meaning that a motorist may only use the space for a set amount of time. If a motorist fails to pay or a parking meter expires, he or she will be liable for a parking ticket. Many cities all over the world use parking meters as part of their traffic management programs, especially in impacted areas.

Parking meter revenue sometimes funds public transportation.
Parking meter revenue sometimes funds public transportation.

The idea for the parking meter was developed in the early 1930s, when Carl Magee wanted to encourage frequent cycling of parking spaces in downtown Oklahoma City. He noticed that people would take up parking spaces all day, discouraging shoppers and people trying to do business. Signs could be posted informing motorists that they could only park for a set amount of time, but Magee thought that meters would enforce the idea and produce revenue for the city.

Parking spaces may have meters.
Parking spaces may have meters.

In 1935, the first parking meter was installed, and the idea quickly caught on elsewhere. The basic design of the parking meter did not vary terribly much in the next 50 years or so. A motorist inserted money and turned a lever, which activated a timer. When the timer was up, a red flag would appear, indicating that the meter had to expire and that the motorist needed to move or insert more money.

Staying past the time alloted on a meter can result in a parking ticket.
Staying past the time alloted on a meter can result in a parking ticket.

In the 1980s, parking meter companies started manufacturing digital parking meters, which used a programmable digital display instead of an analog one. In addition to being clear and easy for motorists to read, a digital parking meter can also be reprogrammed. For example, a city can hike parking rates with a click of a button, rather than having to individually adjust meters all over the city.

In many cities, the individual parking meter, which takes the form of a box on a pole, has been replaced by a “pay and display” set up. This type of parking meter is used to monitor multiple spaces. The motorist must take note of which space he or she uses, and then money can be inserted to pay for the space. Some pay and display systems also accept credit cards or transit tokens, so that motorists do not have to carry around change.

Using parking meters tends to help reduce congestion in downtown areas, since people are encouraged to use public transit, walk, or bike to avoid parking meters and potential tickets. It also generates valuable revenue for a city. Parking meter collections are used to fund traffic improvements, public transit, and other public works.

When parking cars in areas with parking meters, always check to see how much time you can purchase, which types of currency are accepted, and how long you are allowed to park. In addition, many parking meter fees do not apply after a certain time, or on some days of the week, so read the meter carefully to make certain that you are not paying when you don't need to.

Some towns use parking meters to restrict the amount of time motorists can use parking spaces.
Some towns use parking meters to restrict the amount of time motorists can use parking spaces.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon3599

I have a question about your parking meters. This type of meter has a quartz display and accepts quarters, dimes and nickels. You just drop the money in the slot and there is no crank to turn. When money is deposited the meter shows how much time the user has for parking. The meter I'm talking about has a small flashing red lite when the meter is running (due to money being deposited). My question to you is...Can the times of day be retrieved by the machine owner (municipality) that shows the time of day when the meter started running and then also the time of day when the meter stopped? This is a simple matter to resolve.

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