I believe that it would surprise most folks to know that a machine, developed nearly ninety years ago, was first used to ease the parking situation of the day. The hated parking meter.
There are some in my own family who will not think about venturing downtown simply because they feel that finding a place to park is too big of a chore with which to deal. However simple the task to accomplish, finding a parking spot is much more difficult. Between the traffic on the one way streets and the supposedly endless searching for a close parking space, they would rather go to the mall. I think that they typify the opinion of many in the neighborhoods outside New Circle Rd. and a good many within.
Conventional thought of the past 50 years or so has been that it is no problem just to hop in the car and run to the store. You could park at the front door, quickly get in and get out and be home in no time flat. The roads to the store are now wider and carry more cars, the parking lots are bigger as are the stores but it still does not cost you to make the trip. It is always free parking, for you.
The rise of the automobile in America led to more than the freedom of the open road, it led to chaos in the streets of eastern cities which were not designed for them. Cities were built to accommodate rather than integrate cars. According to Kerry Segrave in “Parking Cars in America, 1910-1945”, The idea in force in American law at the start of the 20th century, that thoroughfares were for the movement of traffic—with certain specific exceptions such as the loading and unloading of goods and passengers—gave way fairly quickly to the idea that took root in the popular mind that parking of vehicles on the street was a right and not a privilege. In response, ill-conceived regulations helped cement the concept of free parking as a public good across America, fueling our dependence on automobiles.
Unlimited free parking, without legal restrictions to encourage turnover, soon led to commonplace traffic jams on many city streets, complete with double parking, traffic at a crawl and employees hogging the prime spots all day. I doubt that it helped when turning movements at intersections, with or without traffic control, was added into the equation. Thus the parking meter was devised.
In 1933, Carl C Magee, a Oklahoma newspaper man and entrepreneur, engaged two engineering professors at Oklahoma State University to design and build a control devise. Two years later, Holger George Thuesen and Gerald A. Hale had their first working parking meter, the Black Maria. Magee, having been named to Oklahoma City's Chamber of Commerce Traffic Committee, chose the corner of First Street and Robinson Avenue as a starting point and installed a series of meters along a whole block face. The date was July 16, 1935. Lexington would wait ten more years, July 22, 1946 for their first meters and thus proving Mark Twain wrong.
Each devise cost of $23 apiece but were installed gratis with the understanding that their initial capital cost would be repaid by the five-cent hourly rate, after which the city would reap all parking fees.
Ironically, the world's first parking ticket occurred about one month after the Oklahoma installation when the Rev. C.H. North received a citation while he had gone inside a grocery store to get change for the meter. The judge dismissed the case.
Regardless, the parking did its job and business picked up so dramatically in the first week that the other side of the street demanded that they also have meters installed. Word spread quickly and so did the meters. Lexington, when we did get meters (see above), made a gutsy move and installed 700 meters, on a trial basis.
The reported first days collection of parking meter coins amounted to $451.47 and by the end of 1948 revenues totaled $64,708 for the year.
How did this apparent panacea for all of parking's ills go from being loved in the late '30s to being basically despised two decades later? Can the same thing be said for the stoplights too?
As towns became cities and urban centers, more street space was filled with the parked cars rather than moving ones. Unlike our larger east coast communities, most city's leaders didn’t turn to mass transit as a solution to the increased congestion, but found it to be a convenient excuse to remove what efficient commuter tracks and inner-city rail systems that were in place. Lexington's residents who bought in the neighborhoods designed around the streetcar soon found themselves needing an automobile and a place to put it at home. All of this right in the middle of the Great Depression.
The resulting increase in traffic and its need for parking should have enticed any enterprising property owner to build multi-level, covered parking spaces, much like the older livery stables which could be found dotting downtown at the turn of the century. The building of and maintenance of parking garages can be an expensive proposition, which is why many property owners today look to the local government for assistance.
Probably the best reason for the reversal in thought is “... decades of poor meter implementation, inane off-street parking requirements, and [a] technological stasis [which] slowly turned our city streets into a driver’s nightmare.” according to Hunter Oatman-Stanford in a Collector's Weekly article from January of this year. This could be as a simple as overuse of the meters or just poor placement, which when it did not work as expected was supplemented by equally bad implementations of parking requirements. In typical American response to these ill-conceived regulations, drivers soon began to see the concept of free parking as a public good.
I personally believe that government should not be in the parking business. Provide for their employees and customers, like private enterprise, but that is as far as it should go. Instead of NOT providing free parking, how about encouraging FREE public transit..
Donald Shoup, professor of Urban Planning at UCLA, explains that minimum parking requirements “led planners and developers to think that parking is a problem only when there isn’t enough of it.” All across America today's legally required lots are, more often than not, half-empty since they are designed for the maximum peak use. Parking is kind of like dark matter in the universe, we know it’s there, but we don’t have any idea how much there is.” Today parking lots cover more of urban America than any other single-use of space and it is estimated that the U.S. has as many as eight parking spaces per car.
As the suburban lots are underused for typically short length stays and the downtown spaces are overused for typically day long stays, where is the balance point? When will we begin to mandate “right-sized” parking for particular parts of town rather than continuing a “one size fits all” approach? I can see the developing Design Excellence Guidelines having some input in this regard, but they need to be for all of Lexington and not just the B-2 family of zones downtown.
So, what is lacking in the way of downtown parking? The quantity or quality of inexpensive parking? Or just the lack of free parking where you want it? I think that there should be a definite private participation in our structured parking solutions
The right sizing of parking to our development types and locations along with better public transit access should play a more important in the success of downtown retail, entertainment, offices and residency. But public perceptions will always trail the reality of most situations and as more Millinenials adjust their perceptions, I think that we will see the need for downtown parking wane.
Now, if I were in total control of downtown parking; For the visitor, it would be visible, For the local, it would be there but hidden and Public transit would make it superfluous.