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A Brief History Of Technology And Parking Meters

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Parking Innovation

At first glance, there is nothing high-tech about parking your car. You simply drive to a point along the side of the road or into a parking lot and leave. That’s it. But if you look at the last hundred years, parking has actually been a major driver of technology innovation. Many of these innovations, which we take for granted today—such as the ability to pay for parking from a smartphone—are popular because they are convenient and give motorists a high level of control.

It all started with the first parking meter, which was developed in the 1920s. A decade later, Oklahoma City became the first municipality to deploy mechanical devices that would allow people to insert coins in exchange for a set amount of parking time – the modern parking meter. This proved to be incredibly unpopular, and there were a number of lawsuits related to the constitutionality of charging people to park on public roads. The courts dismissed these challenges, and by the 1940s, almost every major city had some form of parking meter in place.

Evolution of Parking Meter Technology

One of the interesting sidebars to this is that the technology originally developed for parking meters found its way into other kinds of devices, including vending machines and casino games. So the next time you hit a jackpot in Las Vegas, remember to thank Roger Babson, who received the first patent for a mechanical parking device in 1928.

For decades, parking meters changed very little. Drivers would park their cars, insert coins into a device next to the space and turn the crank. An arrow would count down the amount of time they had left in the space before getting a ticket. Then in the 1980s, computer components were small enough that parking meters started going digital. For the first time, people could pay for parking using credit cards and debit cards. This coincided with a much broader technology revolution, highlighted by the personal computer being named Time magazine’s Man of the Year (rebadged as “Machine of the Year”) in 1982. The next decade saw numerous advances in parking meter technology that coincided with improvements in other devices, such as ATMs and portable computers.

Advancements in Multi-Space Parking Meters

The next great leap forward was the development of parking meters that could handle more than one space at a time. Not only did these machines dramatically reduce maintenance costs and vandalism, but they also allowed for much greater flexibility for drivers. Many of these devices included solar panels, marking the first time that alternative energy sources were used to power parking technology. Advanced technologies also allowed cities, including San Francisco, to introduce variable parking rates that tied cost to demand.

Another new innovation is the ability to use smartphones to pay for parking and renew spaces that are expiring. This eliminates the need to frantically run outside and insert coins when time is about to expire. It also allows municipalities and owners of private lots to use apps to streamline payments and communicate directly with drivers. In most cases, the communications are limited to parking notifications, but several also send information about discounts and other premiums.

The Rise of Shared Parking Spaces

Now, as we enter the shared economy age, parking has followed suit. Unused, private parking spaces can be rented for hours or even months at a time. In downtown corridors, this has become essential for workers who need to commute into the city, as there typically aren’t enough parking garages or lots to fit all commuters. It also helps the parking space owners, as they can earn additional income from their unused space.

It makes sense that the evolution of parking technology has mirrored the much broader evolution of technology over the last century. The size of parking meters necessitates the use of miniaturization, which has been the dominant trend in computers since they were invented. Moore’s Law—which posits that processing speed will always increase—also covers the trend toward building smaller and smaller devices. As digital technology and solar power improved, parking meters moved past their roots and became a predictor of things to come.

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