Time is up for the one-eyed money monster

The parking meter is a disappearing species. Helen Nowicka reports Standfirst standfirst standfirst Helen Nowicka
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The Independent Online
Parking meters once stood as familiar sentries on British roadsides, such a part of urban life that the Beatles sang about them. But today the parking meter is an endangered species for which time is fast running out.

The familiar grey machines - known affectionately as the "one-eyed monsters who take our money" - are being phased out in towns and cities nationwide as technological advances render them obsolete.

First installed in July 1958 by Westminster City Council, Britain's first coin-operated meters charged 6d (2.5p) per hour, with an excess charge of 10 shillings (50p) for overstaying and a pounds 2 penalty for drivers exceeding four hours. Such was their popularity with local authorities that in their heyday during the 1970s more than 200,000 parking meters were in use. Now, however, the number is nearer 20,000.

The reason for this street revolution is simple: the increased popularity of pay-and-display ticket machines. They are reliable, hard to vandalise, give change and can take a wider variety of coins than meters, or even credit cards. They can be monitored for faults by a central computer, and because motorists can no longer take over another driver's unexpired time, they make more money.

By contrast, parking meters are vulnerable to thieves, andtheir sheer numbers mean they need intensive maintenance.

John Foster, of the British Parking Association, said: "Pay-and-display machines are the way of the future. The meter might live on in areas where there are only a few parking places together. But I'd be surprised if in 10 years time there were more than 5,000 left."

Meters are already extinct in some cities. Birmingham uprooted the last one in 1989 while Leeds has barely 50 left, down from 900 a few years ago. Even they will be gone by the end of the year. In London, boroughs including Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Westminster are at the forefront of erasing meters. Within seven years there will be only a handful left, according to London's parking director Nick Lester.

Not all meters are discarded. Southampton council sold almost all of its redundant machines at pounds 10 a time to nostalgic collectors who have planted them beside driveways or in gardens.

Parking meters have other defenders - Newcastle upon Tyne has just bought 100 new electronic models, large rectangular boxes that are high-tech cousins of the old designs, each of which control four parking spaces.

Peter Wightman, Newcastle City Council's assistant head of highways and transportation, said: "It's horses for courses. We have a lot of areas where there aren't that many spaces together so it would be a waste of money to have a pay-and-display machine."

One person who will not mourn the demise of the old parking meter is Kenneth Grange. He designed the casing for the first British models after the Government deemed the American version too ugly.

"From a street scene point of view it's a good thing," said Mr Grange. "They never were beautiful. The only drawback is their place is being taken by even more crap."

The 100th anniversary of Britain's first road death will be marked on Saturday by a rally in south London. Bridget Driscoll, of Croydon, was knocked down and killed by a car on 17 August 1896. It was the first recorded fatality involving a petrol-driven vehicle, and at Mrs Driscoll's inquest the coroner expressed the hope that such a thing would never happen again.

Mythology and the meter maid

Parking meters were invented in Oklahoma City by a newspaper editor, Carlton Magee, and first appeared on the streets there in 1935.

In 1961, Bristol became the second city, after London, to introduce meters. They reached Scotland the following year.

In America a parking meter has been developed that resets itself to zero when a vehicle drives off, denying other motorists the chance to use the unexpired time.

Last year Westminster City council offered free meter parking to anyone driving one of London's 50 electronic cars.

In Newton, Massachusetts, firefighers were called out to free a woman whose fingernail had become wedged in the coin slot of a parking meter. The rescue took 15 minutes.

Motorist Sue Daniels won an apology from Camden council in London after she returned to her parked car to find a meter had been installed next to it and she had been clamped.