Ask McGehee

How long has downtown Mobile had parking meters?

To solve the problem of “un-American” parking meters, at least four houses at the southeast corner of Church and Joachim streets were razed in the mid-1940s to create a parking lot. Photo courtesy Museum of Mobile Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The first parking meters in the United States were invented and installed in Oklahoma in 1935, and they were quickly embraced by cities across the nation. The inventor of the parking meter had turned to a Tulsa firm that had perfected timers for explosives used in the oil industry. The company producing the meters was called the Dual Parking Meter Company, based on their dual purpose of measuring parking time and collecting fees.

The Horseless Carriage

In a 1904 interview, a Mobile car dealer said he had counted at least 18 vehicles operating in the city but that 30 orders were underway for new “horseless carriages.” Within 20 years, the number was pushing 14,000, with an estimated 1,500 more expected each year thereafter. Once the causeway and Cochrane Bridge were completed, thousands of cars joined the mix.

The rapid rise in auto traffic was a national concern by the 1920s. Merchants were increasingly worried about a lack of turnover in parked cars, which led to a decrease in customers. Several parking timer devices were proposed well into the early 1930s, but it was the Oklahoma version that won out. Within two years, though, it had to be modified after motorists discovered ways to jam the mechanism.

Both Birmingham and Mobile were quick to install parking meters, but in 1936, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled them illegal, terming them “an unauthorized exercise of the taxing power.” Mobile removed some 60 of the meters in Bienville Square in January of 1937 as a result. Alabama was not alone in the opposition of the new meters. Many states termed them “un-American,” as drivers were forced to pay what amounted to a tax without due process. North Carolina’s court ruled against them in 1940.

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To solve the problem in Mobile, officials urged the conversion of vacant property into parking lots. The recently cleared block on the south side of Government Street between Water and Royal streets was leased to a parking lot operator, and new ordinances were attempted to regulate truck parking and deliveries.

Following World War II, the number of cars began a steep climb, and by 1948, the Alabama Supreme Court had reversed its earlier decision. Within a year, Mobile installed 625 parking meters produced by the Dual Parking Meter Company at a cost of $64.25 each — including installation.

Mayor Charles Baumhauer announced that Mobile’s new parking meters — or rather their posts — would follow a color scheme. Bronze indicated a 15-minute limit at the cost of a penny. Silver allowed the car to remain an hour at the cost of a nickel, and green signified a two-hour limit, at the cost of two nickels or 10 pennies.

Running out of Buildings to Tear Down

By 1955, things had not improved. A local columnist lamented, “It is impossible to find a parking space in downtown Mobile. Even the parking lots are full, and we’re running out of buildings to tear down to make more!” 

The problems with parking in downtown Mobile led to the 1957 arrival of Springdale Plaza, with its acres of asphalt offering free parking to thousands of cars. The air-conditioned Bel Air Mall opened its doors a decade later, and in August 1967, the former downtown retail district began its sad decline.

Today, downtown Mobile is thriving once again with great restaurants, hotels, apartments and art galleries. With employees, residents and visitors vying for parking spaces, it appears history is repeating itself with the installation of new parking meters. Just don’t try to feed one a penny.

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