A Brief History of Parking Meters in Westchester County

Can you guess which Westchester city was the first to install parking meters and which one held out for six years?

During the Great Depression, White Plains became the first Westchester municipality to install parking meters, a controversial act that forever changed the suburban streetscape and made permanent our collective primal scream that we are slowly being nickeled and dimed to death.

It is a dubious honor to be the historic first, though fitting.

After all, White Plains has since achieved notoriety for being the county’s capital of aggressive parking enforcement. Driven by fiscal expedience, the city’s enforcement officers are under intense pressure to issue overtime summonses, lest their municipal overlords accuse them of “malingering.” Quotas must be met — and so there is no grace period for the tardy. One minute past expiration and the PEOs descend faster than a pack of malamutes on a slab of decayed fish. White Plains is a modern model of efficiency when it comes to the phantom tax, generating $6.2 million in parking fines every year.

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It all began modestly enough with the Park-O-Meter, a coin-operated, spring-loaded device that charged five cents for one hour. First introduced in 1935 in the western boom-or-bust town of Oklahoma City, the meters were the answer to a headache endemic to the burgeoning automobile age — a shortage of parking spaces caused by thoughtless motorists who used public streets to store their cars indefinitely. The meters proved effective, and the idea slowly spread across the country, eventually landing in White Plains where an initial batch of 200 Park-O-Meters were installed on May 19, 1938, on Main Street and Mamaroneck Avenue. The overtime fine was $1, at a time when a dollar was still a dollar.

Six months later, Westchester’s first overtime offenders — seven in all — appeared in court to pay their fines. Their names are lost to history, save for one, John T. Young of Greenburgh, who told the judge he thought the Park-O-Meter was a gum machine.

We will never know if Young was being serious. In any case, he paid the fine.

To their eternal delight, White Plains officials concluded that the meters solved the parking “hog” problem and, as a side benefit, brought more shoppers into stores. Something else made them positively salivate — the meters produced a new and lucrative revenue source counted in ever-growing piles of small change. The first year netted $16,500 in coins and fines, equivalent to about $360,000 in today’s money.

Other towns saw dollar signs and signed on. Peekskill was the second city in Westchester to get meters, followed by Mount Vernon and Yonkers.

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A holdout was New Rochelle where the issue was heatedly debated for six years. Yes, six years. The opposition was fiercely led by the Businessmen’s Association which, sparing no hyperbole, declared, “parking meters are the worst of nuisances and unnecessary expenses that could ever be imposed upon the public.”

meters
Adobe Stock/ iofoto

The epic struggle was exhaustively recorded in numerous newspaper editorials, public hearings, opinion surveys, and giant front-page headlines that competed with war news from Europe. Democracy may have teetered on the edge in those days, but it certainly flourished in New Rochelle where every citizen had something to say about parking meters.

The city finally got them in 1942.

So here we are, decades later. The original Park-O-Meter is now an Art Deco relic and a testament to the idiom that time, indeed, is money. And time gets more expensive with every passing year; in most towns these days a nickel buys a grand total of three whole minutes.

No one back in the 1930s foresaw how a seemingly innocent contraption that looked like a gum machine would metastasize into a hydra-headed, cash-sucking monster of smart phone apps, QR codes, and digital keyboards. No one predicted the emergence of something called the Parking Violations Bureau — a monolithic bastion of bureaucratic evil whose soullessness is matched only by the cable company.

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You cannot fight the PVB.

This brings us back to White Plains where it all started.

In the waning weeks of 2023, during the holiday season when unpopular policies are often slipped by a distracted public, the city raised its myriad municipal parking fees and fines — and they did so over the objections of scores of petition-bearing citizens.

Phil Reisman
Phil Reisman photo by Stefan Radtke

The original Park-O-Meter is now an Art Deco relic and a testament to the idiom that time, indeed, is money.

White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach was blunt: “Money that doesn’t come in from parking comes from property taxes,” he said.

It turns out that more money is needed to improve and maintain the city’s parking garages. In other words, the beast must be fed, but its hunger can never be satisfied.

Tempus fugit.

The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com.

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