How Parking Meters Slowly Invaded San Francisco


Dear Parking Guru,
My co-workers and I look forward to reading your blog every Friday. If one of my highlights of each Friday is looking forward to reading about parking, does that make me a true San Franciscan? Also, thanks for last week’s post about getting my $72 refund from SFMTA for parking on Sundays. This change got me wondering how long parking on Sunday had been free, and for how long parking meters have actually been around.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Dear Curiouser,
Thanks for the kind words.  If parking is something that you spend at least 10% of your time, thinking, fuming, talking, or worrying about–and is a factor in decision-making about when and where you go out and do things–then it may have established semi-permanent residency in a corner of your subconscious mind. And yes, that qualifies you as a true San Franciscan, and is considered normal as long as you are within the borders of these 49 square miles. Outside of SF, if you talk about parking too much, things start to get awkward and people begin to talk under their breath about you.
So Curiouser, let’s celebrate our normalcy and talk a bit about the history of the parking meter in SF.
In response to the growing problem for merchants of parking congestion, Carlton Cole Magee, a lawyer by trade, invented the first parking meter in 1932. The first one was installed in 1935 in Oklahoma City. The concept did not go over well with people. Shortly after their installation, vigilantes en masse destroyed them all. But, with modern manufacturing, reinforced US steel, enforcement, and government support, the “Park-O-Meter” won the war.
Shortly after the end of WWII in 1945, with San Francisco’s population swelling, the streets had become snarled with traffic. The City also was in need of a cash infusion in order to continue to provide services and a decent quality of life for its 125,000 new residents since the beginning of the war.  The 29th Mayor of SF, Roger Lapham, put two and two together, and the first parking meter in San Francisco was installed at Bush and Polk on August 21, 1947.  

Interestingly, the introduction of parking meters in SF seemed to have gone under the radar. I cannot find any historical documentation of any civil or uncivil unrest, or protest of their installation.

But, what I did find was that along with the plan to install parking meters, Mayor Lapham also simultaneously endorsed the dismantling of the cable car system, stating that this would bring San Francisco into the “Modern Age.”  This issue captured people’s attention and word of this plan resulted in San Francisco’s first critical mass meeting involving transportation.

At this meeting, the San Francisco Federation of the Arts, many women’s civic groups and the California Spring Blossom and Wildflower Association created the “Committee to Save the Cable Cars,” and named Mrs. Frieda Klussman to head the committee. They created an amendment to save the cable cars that was put to a vote by the people. In the November elections that year, the amendment to protect the cable cars passed 166,989 to 51,457.

Meanwhile, the introduction of parking meters, received almost no attention and flew completely under the radar. Now, I’m no conspiracy theorist (I prefer to call it healthy skepticism), but could this have been political strategy?  Could proposing these two huge, controversial changes simultaneously, knowing that one would take top controversial billing, thereby create a smokescreen for the other to slip on through? If that was the strategy, it was an absolutely brilliant move because, as a result, parking meters earn SF about 15 cents each second of each day.

Currently, 30,000 meters are operating in San Francisco. Last year, drivers deposited $41 million dollars in coins into them, and 397,449 people were collectively fined $25 million dollars for not keeping the hungry monsters fed.

There you go Curiouser.  Happy Friday!

If you’d like to delve even more deeply into the history of all things parking, click here. If you consider yourself a post-modern person and want use your iPhone to be guided by voice to the closest available parking spot, in under a minute for free, click here.

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