Thursday, April 23, 2009

Parking Meters

Under the heading of “nothing new under the sun” we file the recent stories about parking meters in downtown Rochester. According to published reports, the city council is discussing whether the business district might be able to get along without the gadgets, given that the parking program runs an annual deficit of about $70,000. Shoppers, of course, wouldn't miss having to feed the meters, but there is concern that parking spots will not turn over in a timely fashion if parking is not regulated. Council is considering a test program during the summer months, eliminating parking fees on Saturdays.

This debate reminds me of the one that happened in Rochester 59 years ago, when the post-war boom in population and automobiles was causing an acute parking shortage in the business district. There were no meters then, and few municipal lots off Main. To make matters worse, most spaces were being occupied by business owners and their employees throughout the day. The village council's first attempt to address the problem was a two-hour parking limit, enforced by Chief Sam Howlett and his officers, but business owners just made a routine of swapping spaces every two hours to avoid the police officer's chalk stick. Parking meters were suggested, but some merchants and village officials felt that the devices would deter shoppers. Others responded that a lack of parking was already turning potential customers away, and that parking meters would help to alleviate the problem, not make it worse.

After considerable discussion, parking meters were installed on Main, and the village council fretted over the considerable expense involved. The meters went into service on July 16, 1951, and the price of parking was a penny for every twelve minutes. The Clarion reported that a regular turnover of downtown parking spaces was immediately evident. Critics backed off when the meters generated $808 in revenue during the first two weeks of operation and collected more than $15,000 in the first year, making it possible for the village to recover its investment in the equipment more quickly than originally expected.

If you're interested in the origins of the parking meter, check out this interesting video showing public reaction to the installation of the nation's very first parking meter in Oklahoma City in 1935.

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