Parking Meters That Were a Bit Too Smart for their Own Good

A common sight in automobile-congested cities such as New York are parking meters lining the curbs next to parking spots. They’re an autonomous way for the city to charge for the space taken by cars parked along the sidewalk near high-traffic commercial areas, incentivizing people to wrap up their business and move their vehicle out of a costly or time-limited parking space.

The parking meter is such a mundane device most people wouldn’t look at them twice, but on the inside it’s fascinating to see how they’re engineered, how that’s changed through the years, and how a software bug handicapped thousands of digital meters at the start of 2020.

The Origin Of The Parking Meter

One of Carl C. Magee’s earliest parking meter designs, filed for patent in 1932.

Parking meters were originally commissioned in the 1930s by the government of Oklahoma City, due to the rapidly increasing number of automobiles, and therefore demand for parking space. Up until then, the city used patrolling policemen to regulate parking space, but they couldn’t keep up with the pace of the increased traffic and the lack of available parking space made business drop around downtown shops.

The first widely-adopted parking meter was dubbed “Black Maria”, a machine patented in 1935 by Carl C. Magee and Gerald Hale and first installed in the city in July of that year. This was a completely automated mechanical device made to solve the problem of regulating the time a driver can park their car in a given spot. It would take a nickel as payment, inserted into the mechanism by rotating a handle which also served to wind a clock spring. This clock would then tick down the remaining time the user could remain parked there, which could range from 15 minutes to an hour depending on the location.

An early Black Maria design, circa 1933.

Within days store owners noticed a positive effect in their profits thanks to the increase in customers with the regulated parking. What’s more, the coins collected from the meters also generated revenue for the city, and so, parking meters started spreading throughout the city. And as decades went, the mechanics were improved upon. A window was added into which a patrolling officer could easily look to check if the right amount of money (or money at all) was inserted. Separate panels for the coins to be easily collected without risking damage to the rest of the internal clockwork were also added.

The evolution of parking meters eventually passed through meters that could take care of parking spaces on either side of it, halving the amount of necessary poles per sidewalk. Electronic models starting appearing in the 1990s and eventually connectivity added. With meters all hooked up to the same network, the symbiotic connection between the parking meter and your spot was severed. It didn’t matter where your car was parked anymore; you could simply take your printed ticket and put it on your dashboard to be legally parked. Further advancements led to numbers spots that can be paid from any kiosk in the city, or though a smartphone app. But those digital advancements don’t always translate into reliability…

Digging for Quarters on January 1st, 2020

With the introduction of electronic parking meters, accepted payment methods also evolved. No longer did you need to be carrying a coin purse with you to park your car; these new machines could also accept credit cards. But at the beginning of this year, that caused a huge headache to the city of New York. On the morning of January 1st, around 14,000 electronic parking meters set to accept card payments were unable to complete any such transactions, forcing drivers to dig under their car seats for loose change or to deal with digital payments through their smart phones.

The error message that drivers were met with at January 1st, 2020.

According to the Department of Transportation, this was due to an error in the software that handled the transactions, which was set to work until the beginning of the year, and then simply failed to be updated. Flowbird, the company responsible for the software, claimed this was part of an anti-fraud security setting on the software that erroneously triggered, but didn’t elaborate on details beyond that.

While it’s confusing that some media outlets reported on this as a “glitch” while the companies involved deflected it as a failure to update their software, others have been speculating on the true reason why Flowbird’s payment system crashed on such a specific date. As it turns out, there are lingering remnants of the Year 2000 bug that engineers are still tripping over twenty years later. If anyone is playing catch-up, the year 2000 bug (or Y2K) was a fault in software systems, largely banking-related, which recorded years in dates with only 2 digits starting from 1900. Once year 2000 rolled by, the systems couldn’t distinguish that year from a century prior.

As to how this bug managed to survive being squashed for this long, that’s due to a stopgap measure implemented at the heat of the Y2K scare, which uses a “pivot year” in the system. In this case, if a system is given a pivot of “20” for example, it could then know that the years “00” through “19” meant “2000” to “2019” instead of “1900”, but would fail again in 2020 as the problem was not mitigated, only delayed. No sources lead to Flowbird claiming this is what happened to their system, but it’s a plausible answer as to why it flew under the radar enough for such a big and sudden disruption in their services.

To fix it, the DOT trained and dispatched officers to update each and every one of the 14,000 meters, a task that apparently had to be done manually with physical access to the machines. Ironically, such a human task force wasn’t so dissimilar to the “meter maids” of yore, who had to go from meter to meter collecting their coins before electronic payments became the norm. Which brings us to the next section…

Don’t Wear Those Rose-Tinted Glasses Just Yet

The scale of January’s parking meter failure was made possible because one bug was present in the software for every meter. But mechanical, analog parking enforcement is not completely without its faults and loopholes either. The idea to hack and disrupt parking meters is far from new, though maybe the mechanical models didn’t participate so much in self-sabotage. Packed full of cold hard cash, you could still simply lop off the head of a parking mechanical meter; it’s not like there was anything the machine could do to stop you.

Chalking tires is decidedly low-tech but highly effect in determining if a vehicle has been moved.

An example of this is a rash of parking-meter beheadings that hit Washington, DC in the late 1990s. Between 1996 and 1998, groups of vandals hacked off the heads of thousands of parking meters throughout the city, either to collect the coins inside (each meter could hold up to $40 USD) or simply to prevent the parking spaces from being metered. One possible motive that fueled this vandalism is how the meters and parking tickets were seen by the population more as a way for the city to make more money rather than focusing on enforcing laws. City officials estimated the combined loss of revenue and cost of replacement at around $500,000 USD (about $785,000 today).

Other methods of enforcing parking limits aren’t safe from hijacking either. The simplest one, where an officer would mark your tires with chalk to mark a 15 minute parking limit, could be easily bypassed by either rolling your car forwards or backwards a little, or wiping off the chalk with a wet cloth before the officer returned. Wheel clamps, also known as “parking boots”, which are used to prevent a car from driving away due to fines or illegal parking, can easily be extricated with a simple application of an angle grinder or bolt cutters.

More recently, we’ve seen devices dubbed “barnacles” which are attached to the windshield of a car to prevent it being driven away much like a parking boot. However, unlike the more physical restraint, it simply prevents visibility from inside the car and doesn’t actually impede the car from moving, making them pretty easy to knock off of your car with some clever tricks. Due to their electronic nature, some people have even harvested them for the batteries and data-enabled SIM cards inside.

It doesn’t look like self-driving cars will render parking spots obsolete in even the dimly near future. As cities continue to grow in both sprawl and density, the cat and mouse game between parking spot occupation and parking enforcement will continue. And we can’t wait to see how clever the parking meters become.