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.

53 thoughts on “Parking Meters That Were A Bit Too Smart For Their Own Good

  1. These kind of errors have likely been cropping up everywhere that management neglected to replace or update software that had to be hack patched for Y2K. The fact that the software hasn’t been replaced in the last 20 years means that either the software really good or management has been exceptionally negligent and nobody really knows how it works anymore.

    Looking forward to reading about this in 2040. :)

    1. NO software “had to be hack patched”. Someone with decision making power looked at labor costs and their retirement date and decided to KTC (I’ll start explaining acronyms when the writers here do).

      1. There’s not a single acronym in this article that isn’t explained, with the exception of “Washington DC” which is the title of a place in the world, and “USD” which is another worldwide standard for labeling money units.

        Get over yourself.

  2. Expect this to occur every year someone in the world. It’s almost certainly expired certificates. My own company forgot to publish new certificates for some open source packages and we had to scrambled to send out a certificate, screwed it up, revoked that one, then send a new one. We had it sorted out about 2 weeks too late.

    1. Certs are usually issued for a period of time, such as 365 days. Tools like OpenSSL make this the easy path by offering a “-days” option; it’s much harder to set an expiration date on the certificate signing request. That’s why people don’t usually request them to expire on a set date. So it’s unlikely they requested the original cert on New Year’s Day, only to have it expire the next New Year’s Day; nor would it have been the easy path to set it to expire at the end of the year.

      Disclaimer: I’m on our company’s certificate and cryptographic services team, and I’ve worked with hundreds of developers who don’t know the first thing about requesting certificates. They’d find it very challenging to pick an exact expiration date; and I’d strongly discourage them if they tried to pick a holiday.

      1. I’d be interested to know what you thought of Apple’s announced plans to restrict trust to 13 month HTTPS certificates. https://www.theregister.co.uk/2020/02/20/apple_shorter_cert_lifetime/ against the background of security ideas which recommend that you just don’t change long-term passwords unless compromise is suspected. https://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2017/10/changes_in_pass.html I mean, would you expect compromise on certs after 13 months, but not on passwords or ssl-keys?

    1. It’s still used quite a bit in areas with unmetered/unticketed but time limited parking. Usually the ones that aren’t regularly patrolled, but when there is a blitz on by regular vs parking officers in response to complaints.

    2. Chalking tires violates the Fourth Amendment. It’s an unwarranted search. When I first park my car, I’ve done nothing wrong and I am not under any suspicion. At that point an officer has no legal basis to mark my vehicle, not even a probably cause. The mark is applied in preparation for me committing an infraction in the future, not in response to one.

      1. Nope. A chalk-mark on a tire is not a “search” – it’s’ defined as an unobtrusive notation. If you think you can convince a judge that a chalk-mark on the tread of your tire is impacting your life, go ahead and fight it on those grounds. However, you won’t win.

        1. You couldn’t be more wrong.

          https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/04/23/chalking-tires-parking-tickets-unconstitutional-court-rules/3549631002/

          A three-judge panel took up the case of Alison Taylor, a Michigan woman who received 15 parking tickets during a three-year feud with a single parking officer, Tabitha Hoskins of the City of Saginaw.

          Taylor’s lawyer argued that the city’s physical marking with chalk, done to note how long a vehicle is parked, amounted to searching without a warrant — a violation of the Fourth Amendment. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously agreed.

          1. a) That ruling applies to 4 states in one country. That’s not exactly a de facto world-wide prohibition.

            b) The practice continues unabated elsewhere in the US (because of point “a)”).

            c) If you had read the full text of the final opinion filed in the case you cite, you’d see that the panel explicitly said that the ruling did NOT state that chalking violates the 4th amendment. Indeed, the opinion actually gives Saginaw a couple of hints where they could proceed forward with their case.

      2. The biggest thing I have against it is that chalk may need quite a bit of driving to come off on a dry day. Discovered this when trying to check my alignment by chalk marking the tires. It took a loop of several blocks to show well differentiated wear. Therefore one may park for a legal period, move a legal distance and be showing chalk marks that do not relate to current location. So if you’re doing a lot of short hop errands, maybe check/dust your tires at each stop just in case.

        1. Touched report by accident.
          Because of short hop customers laws changed to require lines of chalk continuing onto pavement. Backward juridisdictions could be sued to compensate/force change.

    3. In many municipalities, the ”parking enforcement officer” will ride around in what is almost a golf cart while (s)he holds what looks like a golf club with a piece of chalk at a right angle at the end of it. They drive down a line of cars putting a swipe of chalk on the tires (on the tread) at a specific time, say at noon in a 1-hour-limit park zone. When they come back at 1:15, they write tickets for any car with chalk on the tires.

        1. You should qualify your statement that its unconstitutional in the US, i saw a parking officer mark someones tier today right in front of my house (Melbourne Australia). Also just because something is unconstitutional doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen

        2. That is ridiculous. I’ve read your source so I’m not saying your wrong but I feel like some of your amendments are very vague and change laws to whatever feels right at the time. Chalking tires to catch illegal parking shouldn’t be considered unwarranted search.

      1. You just need to take your own piece of chalk and make a bunch of your own marks around the tires.

        Perhaps you could find a way to make your tires sidewalls very glossy and thus chalk-resistant.

        Reminds me of a story from my university days. One particular teacher had this habit of always cleaning the chalkboards thoroughly at the start of class. One night, I thought I’d see what he did if the chalkboards were already very clean at the start of class the next morning. I got a mop and bucket of water, and used some Mop-and-Glow to make the chalkboards sparkling clean. I was surprised when on the next day, we all discovered that the chalkboards didn’t work anymore. Turns out Mop-and-Glow has wax in it, and waxed chalkboards don’t take chalk. The janitor had to clean the boards again with a wax stripper.

  3. It’s more complicated than that. Yeah, they make a lot of money off of parking and that’s certainly a major factor, but it’s not the only factor. Parking is a limited resource and there is a tradeoff between having space to actually put businesses in and space to park in. Providing a negative incentive to motivate people to not stay for too long means less space is required to be devoted to parking, which can then be allocated to the actual businesses.

    I’d suspect that per square foot a business generates more far revenue from taxes than parking meters do, hence why you’d prefer to minimize parking, but I don’t have a source to back that up.

    1. Spitballing it, it’s kinda close, getting assumptions of around $12000 in taxes for 1000 sqft in a busy area annually, and that would only make for averagely about 4 parking spots, due to entry and exit lane overheads, which you might squeeze $10 a day out of for 300 days of the year, which also comes in around $12k… However, symbiosis is at work, if there were no popular businesses thus capable of paying so much tax, then there would be little demand for parking. If there were no parking, businesses there would not remain popular.

      1. Exactly, it’s a balance.

        It’s *also* about revenue from meters (and fines). My point is that there’s more to consider than *only* the revenue from parking, and there is a justifiable reason for parking metering and tickets beyond revenue.

    2. I agree with you. Thee are many places that I will just not go because of parking issues. I got a laugh when the blurb said that business owners loved the parking meters. Now they are all about free parking and will bitch like crazy because people go to the mall, which amazingly enough, has lots of free parking. Soon it will all be moot though as even fewer people patronize the malls and prefer to shop on line. And it is kind of funny to see downtown areas opening up free parking now that they have killed all the businesses off. Too little and too late. If it makes them feel any better, the malls are not doing a hell of a lot better. I had not been in my local mall in years and I was amazed at how much of an empty shell it has become.

    3. You don’t patronize your local downtown because you eschew using public transportation. You prefer places with less traffic and that’s fine. In NY the only way to increase the number of parking spaces is …. make new streets. Is that your recommendation? Which buildings would you tear down for these new streets?

      1. Public transportation? What’s that? The ONE time I used a bus when I was a kid I had to call my parents after I ran out of money to pay the return fare. Of course I had to beg for a dime to use the payphone.

    4. The same argument applies to parking fines, you’re splitting hairs. Yeah, town governments make big bucks off of fines and it’s *definitely* abused, but there is also a legitimate purpose for those fines too.

      1. There are no “legitimate purpose” for parking fines except for “improperly” parked vehicles – in handicap but not handicap, loading zones, taking up two spaces – NOT for expired meter or staying to long in “timed” space. And those very few instances do not generate the bulk of the revenue.

        Government is about collecting more money so that the employees, elected and hired, can get paid more, nothing else. Let’s start at that extreme position and then move toward the VERY limited “legitimate” functions of government and that government employees either have to be civil service (and get paid LESS than private sector in exchange for job security) or “at will” and can be fired at any time for any cause.

        See my comment below regarding HOW parking fines are used.

  4. If only there was some way to build, like, a self-driving vehicle on a kind of rail system… perhaps one that could hold hundreds of passengers.

    Seriously, self-driving cars are going to have to essentially become a cross between a train and a fucking Rube Goldberg machine before they work acceptably well. Maybe we should get over our car culture and go with a real solution instead of this hyperindividualist nonsense that packs all our urban areas with enormous amounts of unused high-density parking, clogs our streets with metered parking that gets used instead for mind-bendingly dumb reasons, and ends up raising rents while making commutes slower instead of faster. Cars are the dumbest things in the world. Why did we retrofit our transportation system to center around this rich people’s hobby from the 20s? Also, ride-sharing has vastly increased traffic and emissions, not reduced them. Self-driving cars will almost certainly be the same. And more dangerous, not safer. It was always a fraudulent promise, which we should really start to expect from these dumb-dumb bay area unicorns sooner or later. Just how gullible can people be?

    1. That is a rather poor attempt at a one size fits all mentality.

      Self driving cars leave a lot to be desired and mad public transport has its place in certain places but as long as we are individuals and not clones we will need personal transport and places to park it.

    2. We can get rid of the hyperindwotsitdoodahthatshelltotype in vehicles if we can do away with it in jobs, let the government choose where you work so transportation routes can be planned more efficiently.

      1. I’d sure like to try to get to my always changing job address in public transportation as I put a whole work vans worth of crap in the seat next to me…
        Yup cars suck- down with service calls! to hell with road trips…

  5. The mini computer I worked on asked for the date each morning on power up. On 29th February 1976 it refused to accept the 29th (a leap year). A hasty patch was worked out for world-wide distribution.

  6. Our company’s main production system just (last week) had a «decennium» bug “fixed”.

    We use to name our “files” xxxymmdd (with xxx being a three digit bus garage number) and the software just got upgraded to allow 9 instead of 8 positions so now we can have a “file” called xxx200227 for feb 27.

    This majorly screws up “file” sorting because a “folder” (which holds one production year running from mid-december to mid-december) now contains “files” starting with xxx9, xxx0 and xxx20.

    But it was already screwed as due to a bankruptcy some garages (which usually have fixed numbers) merged or changed numbers…

    How and why they only did this now is beyond me – I’ve been working with this company since 2013 but this software has been here since 1996 and the file and folder tree structure (in reality it’s an object-oriented database) since at least 2005 (but probably since 1996).

    But next year all ordering will be ok. And this structure will be ok until 2099 (or when we hit over 999 garages in theory, 199 in our current plan – but we’re now at 140 and have most of the country so that’s a bit unlikely)

      1. I am as clueless as you are. The software is made by an independent vendor but we are their biggest customer by far and collaborate closely with them on things like this.

        But “It always worked well this way” is a big factor in my field of work :-(

  7. I think you might have missed the technological progress those electronic meters displayed when they were introduced. There is no electric nor communication connection, which in the street is a big issue (less at a car park). They work with a solar panel and had to do a lot of low power clever stuff and GSM weird things to accept credit cards at the time. One of the reason the previous ones were 100% mechanical was because of this no-utility rule.

    1. The payment options of the new electronic meters are impressive. As your time expires you can get a text message and you can easily add more money to the meter.

      The feature I haven’t seen yet – I’m leaving early so I want a credit applied to my card.

      Can’t be done. I wonder why.

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