Parking Meters: The Congestion Pricing Controversy of 1932

parking_meters.jpg

By now we’re all familiar with the litany of complaints about the City’s new traffic control plan: It’s an unfair and burdensome new tax; it’s going to kill retail business and hurt the little guy; and most of all, it’s just plain "un-American."

That, of course, is what critics are saying about congestion pricing in New York City in 2007. 

It turns out that the critics said the exact same things about new-fangled contraptions called Park-o-Meters when they were introduced in urban centers in the early 1930s. (Notably, The Automobile Club of New York was a vocal critic in both eras, their message almost completely unchanged over 75 years).

Cynthia Crossen offers a brief history of parking meters in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Parking on city streets today is a cinch compared with
the 1930s, when free, unlimited parking was considered every American’s
constitutional right.

Just as their grandparents had tied their horses to
the general store’s rail, American drivers expected handy curb space
for their cars when they went to town. By the 1930s, however, there
were too many cars and too few curbs.

The result was chaos. Employees of downtown businesses
hogged spaces for whole days; some merchants deliberately parked their
cars in front of competitors’ stores. Other drivers circled the narrow
streets waiting for a rare free space. Trucks loading or unloading
double-parked. In most cities, there were no marks on curbs to
delineate spaces. In the few timed spaces, enforcement by chalking the
tires was easy to beat. And the art of parallel parking was in its
infancy.

And, who knew? History’s first "parking squat" took place in 1935, conducted by angry motorists:

The nation’s first parking meters — crude,
single-coin machines that charged a nickel an hour — were installed in
Oklahoma City in July 1935. Public opinion ranged from mockery to
indignation. One day, two couples set up a folding table and four
chairs in a parking space, deposited a nickel in the meter and played a
rubber of bridge.

But many drivers believed that charging for parking
was downright un-American. The "newfangled nuisances," "damn foolish
contraptions" or "gypometers," opponents said, illegally infringed on
the individual’s right to free use of the public streets. They amounted
to a tax on automobiles, depriving owners of their property without due
process.

"This is just a combination of an alarm clock and a slot machine which
is being used for further socking the motorist, who is already paying
enough in taxes," argued William Gottlieb of the Automobile Club of New
York

Photo: Omaha, Nebraska, November 1938 by John Vachon, for the Farm Security Administration via Touching Harms the Art

  • Interesting perspective. I think you’re accurate in comparing the underlying psychology. Hey, I’ve been guilty of it, too.

  • alex

    Nice post as usual.

    Where is the picture from?

  • Useful to keep in mind that cyclists and other public space activists today see the rental of space on our streets through parking meters as incredibly cheap real estate: as a result, many of us hold “parking meter parties” very similar to the bridge players of yore. By renting the space and occupying it with living, breathing bodies, people having fun and sharing the public realm, we are criticizing the heart of car culture: that the space for their cars should be available to them at any time, anywhere, for next to nothing.