District's new parking meters take credit cards

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; B01

In the 75 years since the first parking meter sucked down a coin, few kind words have been said about the sidewalk sentinels.

They demand your money, and if you spurn them or overstay your welcome, you risk a parking ticket.

Given that chilly relationship, the warmth Saturday on U Street NW was extraordinary.

"That's pretty cool. I like it," said Donis Zepeda as he studied one of eight new meters just east of 15th Street.

"I appreciate this," Zach Gittens said after pulling up to another.

The beauty of the meters deployed this month is simple: They take plastic. No quarters needed.

The meters were installed in five locations in the District where parking spaces turn over frequently, where the per-hour charge amounted to $2 and where the meters needed replacing anyway.

The new meters are fairly simple to operate, but there is a trick to them. When a credit card is inserted, the window flashes to 45 minutes. If you press the green "okay" button and walk away, you'll be charged $1.50. That's great if you plan to be there for 45 minutes, but if you're just grabbing the dry cleaning or picking up a pizza, look to the two little blue buttons on the left. Just like a Metro Farecard machine, one allows you to add time to the meter (and more money to your credit card bill), and the other allows you to subtract.

The new meters also accept dollar coins, quarters, dimes and nickels. But as several people parking on U Street said Saturday, who carries change these days?

It takes a pound of quarters to pay for two hours of parking at one of the District's "premium" location meters. In addition to people carrying change less frequently, merchants often post "no change" signs in windows.

"I never carry coins, and I get a lot of tickets," Zepeda said as he slipped his Visa card into the meter and punched the buttons. "That was pretty easy. "

Gittens, 25, said that to people his age, cash is obsolete.

"My generation is used to plastic. Who carries quarters?" he asked. "I risk it a lot. If I can use plastic, I'll pay the meter every time."

The first meters

The first parking meters were dreamed up by Carl C. Magee, who received a patent in 1938, about three years after they were installed in his home town of Oklahoma City. Magee had been asked to stop downtown workers from hogging spaces, leaving shoppers and visitors no place to park.

What his first meters did was puzzle people. They quickly recovered, though, began jamming the machines and then took the city to court, ultimately to no avail. A local newspaper said, "The meters, about the size of mantel clocks, are set on upright poles at the edge of the sidewalk."

In 1936, a proposal to try meters in the District was denounced by the American Automobile Association, which said they would "saddle a further load of double taxation on the shoulders of car owners."

Congress, which then exercised a stronger grip over the District, fought over the issue for the next three years before the first nickel was dropped into a "trial meter" on F Street.

Some observers that November afternoon predicted that people would stop driving into the city, and others were delighted at the prospect that there would be plenty of parking spaces.

Neither proved true. Within a week, someone made an unsuccessful attempt to break open a meter, and Robert W. Waldron made history as the first Washingtonian hauled into court for not paying.

He had a pretty good case by today's standards: Time had been left on the meter by the previous parker, so why should he pay? But Judge John P. McMahon ruled that the law said everyone had to pay with their own nickel, so he fined Waldron $5.

Parking with impunity

Parking meter historians note that over time, it was deemed necessary to fortify parking meters in stronger steel casings. Robbing meters might seem small change for crooks, but it was enough to prompt a wave of thievery in the District in the late 1990s in which thieves decapitated the meters and carted them off to be cracked open.

The District estimated that it was losing $400,000 a month that might have been collected from drivers who delighted in parking with impunity. The rows of headless meter posts came to symbolize dysfunctional city management.

"It was a daily reminder that the city had problems," said then-D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp on the day in 1998 when the city announced that tough new meters would be installed. "Just as the heads off the meters signified a city with problems, the repair signifies a city on the mend."

The 16,000 new meters defeated the crooks, gobbled quarters with fierce efficiency and alerted vigilant blue-uniformed meter minders when parking tickets should be issued.

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