Mind Over Meter: Are The City’s New Parking Meters Too Smart?


New smart meters will boost city revenue, but they’ve put good parking karma into reverse

A parking meter used to be dumb. Essentially a kitchen timer crossed with a pay phone, it was built to measure thin slices of time while snacking on coins (and later credit cards) all day. Now it’s getting a whole lot smarter, thanks to a new series of solar-powered, technologically advanced models that come with hockey puck-size sensors installed beneath each parking spot. These computerized upgrades, which have been rolled out in Santa Monica, take standard money suckers and transform them into sophisticated data trackers to make parking easier, more efficient, and maybe even ticket free.

The geeky embellishments mean no more sprinting to feed your meter like it’s a newborn baby. Instead you can receive a text message and pay with your mobile phone without getting up from the brunch table. The projected annual revenue from the Santa Monica smart meters is $1.7 million, and there’s an even more valuable bonus: abundant traffic data. “We want to provide the city with data on how parking spaces are used and work with engineers to develop parking management,” says Don Paterson, the assistant director of finance in Santa Monica. The capability to direct drivers to open spaces could put an end to block circling forever.

That certainly sounds smart, maybe a little too smart. Sensors can track car movement, which means when your time is up, there’s no adding on, just moving on. Another (currently dormant) feature can alert parking police when you max out your minutes. Then there’s all that personal data. Credit cards are already fraud magnets. Add a phone number and (in some cases) a license plate number, and you’ve supplied a lot of information for a 20-minute shopping trip.

The genius devices also extinguish a shared spiritual experience among Angelenos: good parking karma. In the old days, if you used part of your meter time, you could enjoy a pay-it-forward moment with the stranger who pulled in after you. The newbies are now programmed to swallow unused minutes and, with that, kick a half century of goodwill to the curb.

Photograph courtesy Matthias Kulka/Corbis