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How does a Parking Meter Work?

By Shannon Kietzman
Updated May 16, 2024
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A parking meter is used to keep track of the amount of time a vehicle is parked in a specific area. After inserting money into this device, the commuter has a certain amount of time to keep his or her car parked in the spot before it is necessary to insert more money. If the person fails to insert more money when time runs out, he or she may receive a parking ticket from a police officer commonly referred to as a meter maid.

Traditionally, parking meters were activated by placing coins inside a special slot. While the coin-activated parking meter is still common, there are also versions that accept credit cards or even special cards called smart cards which can be pre-loaded with credit and used to pay for time.

The slot in which coins are inserted into the parking meter is capable of identifying the type of coin that has been inserted. The slot identifies the coins through a combination of tests it has been programmed to conduct. These include testing the weight of the coin, as well as using electrical currents or lasers to test for other physical properties of the metals used to create coins. To simplify the testing process, the majority of parking meters accept only one type of coin, most often the quarter.

After the coin or coins have been accepted, the user must turn a handle or press a key in order to set the amount of time needed. A display or a dial appears on the parking meter to indicate the amount of time the user has for use of the parking spot. As time passes, the meter counts down to indicate how much time remains.

Some more modern designs also contain special sensors. These sensors use laser lights to determine when the parking spot has been vacated. When the parking meter determines the spot is empty, the time remaining on the clock automatically returns to zero. This prevents other people from using the time remaining on a meter after the spot has been vacated. The special sensor also ensures that cars are removed from areas that have a limit on the amount of time a person can remain parked in one spot.

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Discussion Comments
By myharley — On Nov 01, 2012

I imagine that parking meter technology, along with everything else, is changing all the time. I like the fact that some meters allow you to pay with a credit card as I seldom carry cash or change with me. This just makes a lot more sense since most everything else allows you to use a credit card to make a purchase.

By andee — On Oct 31, 2012

@sunshines -- I agree with you on that point. There are times when I might not have enough quarters and need to use other coins to get enough time. I have found that the meters that are closer to downtown events usually have a two hour time limit.

The farther away you get from the downtown area, you can find meters that will give you time up to 10 hours. This is really helpful if you are going to be in a meeting all day and don't have time to get away and put more change in the meter.

You will probably have to walk further in order to do this, but sometimes that is the best option. Whenever I use a meter that only allows for a couple hours of time, I hate the fact that I have to run out there every few hours and put more money in the meter.

By sunshined — On Oct 30, 2012

Thankfully I don't have to use a parking meter very often, but I always keep spare change in a special compartment in my car. This way I know I will always have change on hand if I need to use a meter for any reason. I have always used meters that accept nickels and dimes, along with quarters. It really seems more efficient to use a quarter because a nickel only gives you a couple of minutes, but it is still nice to have the option of using other coins in addition to quarters.

By Mykol — On Oct 29, 2012

What will they think of next? As far as I know we don't have any laser parking meters in my area. I love it when I pull into a parking spot and there is still plenty of time on the meter and I don't have to put any change in.

This is the first I have heard about laser meters that will automatically set to zero if they don't sense a car is there. I do believe that parking enforcement is important, but I think this is carrying it a bit too far.

By anon165665 — On Apr 05, 2011

Very good article. Extremely helpful.

By famnfriends — On Mar 10, 2011

@artlover--The parking meters were first invented in the 1930s, by a man from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His name was Carl C. Magee. He invented them to help keep the shop keepers and staff from taking all the close parking spaces and blocking out the customers.

I agree with you, it is frustrating. I live in a town where parking meters line the downtown area as well. I am always looking for change.

By artlover — On Mar 08, 2011

Our town has these all along Main Street. It's very annoying when you have to leave a meeting to run and put more money in the meter.

Does anyone know when and where the parking meter first appeared? I find this an interesting invention.

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