Parking: A History 

How the city's blue parking kiosks consigned coin-fed machines to the dustbin of history

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Salt Lake City Signs & Markings Supervisor James Aguilar surveys what remains of the city's old coin-fed parking system. - COLBY FRAZIER
  • Colby Frazier
  • Salt Lake City Signs & Markings Supervisor James Aguilar surveys what remains of the city's old coin-fed parking system.

On M Street in the Avenues, a rusty D-ring, anchored deep into the curb, is available for anyone to hitch their horse to. In front of the David Keith mansion on South Temple, a sandstone pillar equipped with rings for horse hitching sits near a sandstone stoop used to step up into a high-clearance carriage.

These relics are a distant leap from the city's modern parking system, the guts and gears of which are 300 blue, solar-paneled kiosks that accept all major credit cards, offer seven minutes of parking for a quarter and allow parkers to pay via smartphone apps.

But the parking system that dominated Salt Lake City's streets for much of the 20th century, and into the first part of this century—the iron coin-fed parking meter—is a ghost. The only signs of the city's 1,175 coin-fed parking meters are the pipes in front of most parking stalls where the roughly 50-pound bodies of parking meters once rested. Signs with parking-stall numbers now hang from the poles. And twelve of the city's former parking meters have been placed around the city, used as donation jars for the Homeless Outreach Street Team.

The meters, though, are still around, gathering dust beneath an awning at the Salt Lake City Streets Division, located at 2010 W. 500 South, a straight 20-block shot away from the downtown streets where the parking meters once stood.

As the tons and tons of steel have sat idle, parking has become a political grenade launched at Mayor Ralph Becker, who spearheaded the move from the old coin-fed machines to the new kiosks.

The series of events that culminated with crews hacking the coin-fed machines from their perches began in early 2012 when the City Council voted to allocate $4.1 million to buy a new and improved parking system.

Robin Hutcheson, Salt Lake City's transportation director, says the city's master plan in 2008 made clear that the city needed to somehow wed technology to its street-parking program. Accepting credit cards as a form of payment was an important part of the puzzle.

Once the new system was in place, technical glitches and critiques of the machines' general user-unfriendliness stacked up. When temperatures soared during the summer months, some of the machines failed. At times, credit-card readers refused to work. The keypads weren't illuminated, and payments took too long to process.

These concerns have bled into the mayoral campaign, where Jackie Biskupski, who is challenging Becker's bid for a third term as mayor, has been critical of the mayor and the city for the parking system.

Behind many of the problems that the kiosks initially faced, Biskupski says, was the city's failure to fully a vet a system that cost millions in taxpayer money. "I think the original meter system and all of the problems that came with it came from the rush with not really vetting out the kiosks," she says.

Matt Lyon, Becker's campaign spokesman, says the new system is functioning the way it should and that the city's decision to jump into the modern era of parking was well advised.

"The city recognized there was an issue and there was a complete overhaul," Lyon says. "I think the city responded and managed the project extremely well, and it's an effective, modern parking system that you see in nearly every other city."

When it comes to visiting downtown Salt Lake City, parking remains a marquee concern to many Utahns. A recent marketing survey conducted by the Downtown Alliance showed that when respondents were asked what would make them visit downtown more often, 25 percent said "improved parking." The next closest category, besides "other" 19 percent, "can't think of anything" 15 percent, "don't know" 13 percent and "miscellaneous" 8 percent, was improved public transportation at 5 percent.

Exacerbating the problems with the parking system, Hutcheson says the vendor wasn't responsive to the city's woes.

To remedy the problem, Hutcheson says city leaders used the remaining $600,000 of the initial $4.1 million to replace all of the kiosk's innards.

Since this switch took place in March 2015, Hutcheson says the bugs have been worked out. Seemingly small things, like illuminated screens and improved keyboards have increased the kiosks' functionality.

Since then, Hutcheson says not a single kiosk has failed. The new kiosks, though, are still not immune to criticism.

For one, in 2012, a quarter bought ten minutes of parking, where a quarter now buys seven. And although the new kiosks accept credit cards, the minimum charge is $2, which buys an hour of parking even if one only needs to park for five minutes.

On a recent Friday afternoon, as the summer sun unleashed its fury, this was Mary Potter's concern as she fed the blue kiosk with coins.

Potter fondly recalled the old coin-fed meters, which showed clearly how much time remained on a parking space. And carrying around coins, she says, never bothered her; that's how she still pays.

"Those were fantastic," Potter says of the old machines. "I think everybody liked them. If it's not broken, don't fix it, right?"

Like a typewriter, which serves only a single function of printing letters on a page, the old parking meters lacked a secondary function: In addition to providing a way to charge for parking, Hutcheson says the new system provides data collection.

With the new machines, Hutcheson says city officials can map parking habits and study ways to improve the system. One key change since the new system arrived involves a reduction in the actual number of metered spaces, which were chopped by 400.

Hutcheson says these 400 stalls, primarily located along the outskirts of downtown, were cut from the pay system because the amount of money it required to install and maintain the parking kiosks and signs wasn't being generated by the spaces.

"We just were able to collect data, which we could never do before," Hutcheson says. "We have a much more refined system now."

The city is also collecting a lot more money. With rate increases that have doubled from $1 in 2011 to $2 today for an hour of parking, and a time extension that requires parkers to pay until 8 p.m. (up from 6 p.m.), the city's parking meters raked in $2.7 million in the most recent fiscal year, says Mary Beth Thompson, the city's financial operations director. The last year with coin-fed parking meters brought in only $1.5 million.

And credit-card users make up a hefty portion of those parking in the city's remaining 1,700 stalls—a demand that Hutcheson says the city correctly anticipated. She says 75 percent to 80 percent of parking transactions are made by credit card. And the city's new smartphone app, ParkSLC, which kicked off in April, tallied 7,000 transactions in June.

Parking, or more accurately, paying for parking, is one of the nagging parts of living in a city that is never praised by the public.

"You can have machines that make you 10 pounds thinner and deliver you chocolate cake, and you still won't like parking," Hutcheson says. "We want to make it as good of an experience as it can be."

To that end, Hutcheson says, the parking system in place allows people to park their cars conveniently, so they can get on with whatever else they might be doing downtown.

"I am proud that the city recognized the problem and fixed it quickly and was smart with the resources we have," Hutcheson says. "We made it a lot better for the public."

But, like the typewriter, the record player and the rotary phone, the antiquated coin-fed hunk of steel that functioned fine for decades only to be replaced with shiny blue computers, touches a nostalgic nerve.

At the Streets Division yard, the parking meters have been dismantled. The gray machines are stacked on pallets; the addresses, marking their locations— for example, 2E108S (108 S. 200 East)—still emblazoned on the steel.

A bin holds 1,615 meter-head caps, which sat atop the machines, while 2,100 digital meter modules (the electronic mechanisms that kept time) sit in a second bin.

James Aguilar, the city's Signs and Markings supervisor, says that from a maintenance perspective, the largest problem with the old machines was people who purposely jammed them with pennies wrapped in paper so they wouldn't have to pay for parking. Also, the batteries needed to be replaced every six months.

Ryan Zumwalt, the city's parking supervisor, says people still purposely jam the new machines with pennies that have been glued together. But because the blue kiosks are solar powered, the batteries never need to be changed.

As for the old machines, which new cost around $1,000, Aguilar says the city has made one attempt to auction them off. Only three were sold. He says another attempt at an auction could be made, or these most recent relics of the age of the automobile could end up as scrap metal.

"We're moving to new times," Aguilar says.

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