80 years ago, parking device got its start in downtown OKC
The next time you get caught in a long line and return to find an envelope under your windshield wiper blade, you can thank an Okie for that parking ticket.
The parking meter was designed for and first implemented in downtown Oklahoma City 80 years ago.
On July 16, 1935, 150 mechanical metal meters began charging a nickel per hour of parking in certain areas downtown. Two years later, Oklahoman-designed parking meters had been installed in 25 American cities and other models in an additional 15 cities.
Today, digital parking meters bring in nearly $1.2 million in revenue annually, Oklahoma City records show.
When automobiles replaced streetcars, downtown merchants needed a way to encourage turnover in the parking spaces outside their businesses and to keep employees from hogging the prime spots during business hours.
“By the late 1920s and early 1930s, streetcars were failing because everyone could now afford a car. Henry Ford was assembling cars in Oklahoma City. ... You could buy a brand new Model T for $400. Suddenly cars were becoming available to the middle class,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
“All these retailers wanted customers to be able to park in front of the store and get access to whatever and then they’d leave. The people working downtown would park there, and they’d stay all day,” Blackburn said.
“So how do you create turnover?”
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That was a problem Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce traffic committee Chairman Carl Magee was given to solve in 1933.
“Of course, there was no electricity at the time, so it has to be a mechanical system that was spring loaded, so you had to be able to put a nickel in it, turn a handle that was mechanical and somehow it would give you one hour of parking before it flipped up and said ‘expired,’ ” Blackburn said.
Magee took his invention to mechanical engineering students at what was known then as Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Oklahoma State University.) It was a graduate by the name of Gerald Hale who developed the model into a working product, Blackburn said.
In 1934, a Tulsa company began manufacturing the meters, which were installed in the summer of 1935.
“The retail merchants are happy. The customers are happy because even though they’re paying a nickel, they can park close, almost in the store. And the city has a little stream of revenue,” Blackburn said. “Not only does the city profit, but investors profit. Magee raises enough money in town with other Oklahoma City businessmen invest and create the company Park-O-Meter and start manufacturing meters that they sell to other cities.”
The first parking meter installed in Oklahoma City is at the Oklahoma Historical Society today.
It was donated by R.J. Benzel, the president of what was then known as the Dual Parking Meter Co.
Benzel knew they had a hit on their hands in 1937 when the meter was donated, just two years after it was installed.
In a letter dated Sept. 16, 1937, Benzel wrote: “It will be seen that the parking meter idea was born in the brain of an Oklahoman, developed by him, and other Oklahomans, in our State Agricultural and Mechanical College, and produced by an Oklahoma manufacturer at Tulsa.
“I confidently believe that in the next few years, the majority of cities throughout the world that have parking problems will install meters as a means of solving most of their difficulties ... This Number 1 meter is being sent to you, as I believe over the years it was have an historical value,” Benzel wrote.
That No. 1 meter will be on display at the Oklahoma History Center beginning in November as part of the upcoming exhibit “Crossroads of Commerce: A History of Free Enterprise in Oklahoma.”
Parking meters also carry a monetary value. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, Oklahoma City meters brought in $1,199,766.84.
Eight months brought in more than $100,000, with revenue from November through February between $80,000 and $90,000 per month, according to Oklahoma City finance records.
Oklahoma City has begun changing from the mechanical parking meters for individual spaces to what are called multispace meters, which are computerized and have credit card transaction slots.
While the old parking meters cost about $800 each, a new parking terminal runs the city about $6,000.
The new meters — which are part of Oklahoma City’s Project 180 — have allowed the city to add an additional 600 parking spaces in the downtown area, said Debi Holtzclaw, Oklahoma City parking manager.
About 300 of the city’s 900 mechanical meters have been replaced by 125 multi-space meters. Another 50 are on hand and waiting to be installed in completed areas of downtown, Holtzclaw said.
Parking in low-traffic areas may cost as little as a quarter an hour, and vehicles may remain in some zones for up to five hours. But the original intention of keeping spaces free in retail areas remains the reason in some areas, like Park Avenue. There the cost is 75 cents per half-hour with one-hour limits, Holtzclaw said.
“The whole purpose of the parking meter was to move the traffic,” she said.
City officials have seen increasingly higher revenues from the parking meters. Those dollars are swept into the city’s general fund.
“We already saw an increase with our revenue just due to credit cards. People tend to put another 1.50 on there instead of running the risk of a ticket,” Holtzclaw said.
The busiest month of the past year was June, which brought in a total of $117,365.30. That was an increase of $11,000 over last June, which was the busiest month of 2014, bringing in $106,071.58, according to city financial records.
The smallest amount of revenue parking meters have brought the city in the past five years was $35,424.08 in March 2012, records show. That year also brought in the least total annual revenue of that five-year period with $547,113.97.
Revenue is expected to climb as Project 180 spreads through downtown Oklahoma City.
Weekends are free
The meters are strictly enforced by six full-time Oklahoma City police employees. Once known as “meter maids,” police service technicians, as they’re now called, patrol downtown in motorized carts, serving parking violators with $15 tickets, Capt. Bobby Tompkins said.
Rather than the pens and ticket pads of old, citations are issued electronically on site and uploaded to the municipal court system at the end of the shift. Once it’s been turned over to the city, the courts have to handle any voided or dismissed citations, Tompkins said.
While the meters indicate they are enforced from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Tompkins said the technicians currently don’t work on the weekends.
“There are a lot of cities that do enforce on weekends, but we’re not one of them,” he said.