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Time expiring on a tradition

September 25, 2005

BEWARE OF CLAIMS that some newfangled invention or device is "more convenient and effective." The new so-called smart parking meters being tested in various cities locally, and already in use in Pacific Grove near Monterey, have drawn such acclaim from government officials and planners that it is only prudent to ask: More convenient for whom, and more effective at what?

Some of these fiendishly clever contraptions will take credit and debit cards, and can be programmed to send you (for an extra fee, of course) cellphone reminders that you're running out of time. Yet smart meters also threaten to destroy some of the most honored traditions of American parking culture.

No longer, for example, will the system reward anyone with moxie enough to run out from the salon with her hair covered in white goo and aluminum foil in order to rub the chalk marks from her car's tires. Some new meters have sensors that can detect whether a car has (or hasn't) moved and will not accept additional payment if the car has overstayed its allotted time; other systems use license-plate scanners.

Chalk marks, used by human parking officers for most of the 20th century to indicate how long a car had been in its spot, may well go the way of hieroglyphics.

Even more disturbing is the effect of these new meters on the fragile social fabric of parking culture. What Tennessee Williams really meant by the "kindness of strangers" was getting a spot with 37 minutes left on the meter, generously paid by the unseen motorist who didn't use all his minutes just before you.

But when the sensors note that a car has pulled out from its spot, the meter resets to zero. There's also the kiosk system, in which people pay for their parking yards away from their spot and get a receipt. That, too, makes cadging off someone else's unused parking time impossible.

There are those shopping days when you can't find a decent sale anywhere, or those times when the restaurant serves your salad warm and charges for a soda refill. Sometimes the only saving grace to such a day is the few coins you didn't have to pay the meter.

But as technology marches through our parking lots, we needn't just sit there and take it. We can always file a formal protest with the relevant authorities -- someone already paid to rent that space for those hypothetical 37 minutes, and the city is charging another driver for those same minutes. This is double taxation measured in quarters.

Call us Luddites, but we prefer old-fashioned coin-operated meters. Preferably the ones with those little knobs that make a satisfying grinding sound when you turn them.

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