In 1997, a cache of stolen, decapitated parking meters was discovered behind a vacant building in Northeast Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist

I remember (or imagine) something that happened in D.C. in the 1990s, but I can’t find confirmation of it anywhere. Nobody I know remembers it. As I remember things, a large number of downtown parking meters had their heads stolen. I remember looking up some block downtown and seeing a long line of pipes with no meter heads.

Can you verify that I am not hallucinating these memories?

— Tony Magliero,

Hyattsville, Md.

Stolen and smashed parking meters were costing the District an estimated $500,000 a month during the vandalism epidemic of the mid-1990s . (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Ah, the legend of the Headless Parking Meter. It’s one of Washington Irving’s lesser-known works, but it still manages to strike fear into the hearts of city officials. After all, parking is a nice little moneymaker. When parking meters don’t work, the money slows down.

And that’s what was happening in Washington in the mid-1990s. In the first six months of 1996, more than 800 parking meters were vandalized, their heads smashed off with baseball bats or sledgehammers, police surmised. By March 1997, the total was 3,000 meters, out of the city’s 16,000. D.C. officials estimated that broken or vandalized meters were costing the District $500,000 a month in lost revenue.

The vandalism followed the introduction of new, more stringent ticketing appeal procedures. Was this civil disobedience? Or was it, as police suggested, commuters hoping to park all day free of charge at a broken meter or homeless people looking for cash? (A meter could hold $40 in quarters.)

It turned out to be the work of organized crime, or as organized as it takes to swing a sledgehammer.

“This is a citywide problem, and up to date, we have made 26 arrests,” 1st District police Cmdr. Alfred Broadbent told my colleague Hamil Harris in 1997. “We have identified several groups of individuals who are working in concert throughout the entire downtown area.”

People in the police department said the leader of the ring had been arrested twice.

Parking meters from Capitol Hill to Adams Morgan were harvested by the gang. On some blocks, every meter was missing. Some 200 of them turned up in a vacant lot behind a storefront in Northeast Washington — a sad collection of meter heads and meter trunks. Their plundered remains looked like the empty shells left after an oyster fest or a multitude of shattered metal piñatas.

“I can hear them banging on the meters with the crowbars at night, and then the next day, you see the meters in the back yard,” said Ozzie Turner, who owned a dry-cleaning business next door to the lot at 406 H St. NE.

The city invested in more robust parking meters designed to withstand abuse, but it was advances in meter technology that really solved the problem.

Twenty years later, Washington has more parking spaces: over 18,000, said Evian Patterson, citywide parking manager at the District’s Department of Transportation. But there are fewer parking meters: only 12,000.

“The industry is moving away from a single-space to a multi-space environment,” Evian said.

A multi-space environment is one where a single meter — one of those green kiosks — covers eight to 10 parking spaces. One advantage to multi-space meters: You can potentially cram more cars in.

A street planted with single meters will accommodate only one vehicle every 20 feet, the size of a standard parking space. But the cars that people drive in cities tend to be smaller than they once were.

“Imagine if you have several smart cars,” Evian said. “You can fit multiple vehicles in a 20-foot space.”

The multi-space kiosks accept credit cards, as do most of the single parking meters. A parking meter that takes credit cards is less desirable to a thief than one full of coins.

“Our worries are just people being compliant and paying the meter,” Evian said. “I haven’t dealt with vandalism in some time.”

Motorists don’t even need to pull out a credit card. They can use their phones to activate the Parkmobile app, which can be linked to their credit cards or PayPal accounts. Evian said the District has the most successful phone-parking program in the country, with close to 55 percent of the city’s revenue coming from people paying by phone.

No matter how you pay — coin or credit card — it all adds up. Evian said that last year, revenue from the city’s parking meters totaled $40 million.

Twitter: @johnkelly

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