Idaho History

Boise's first parking meters created a furor in 1940

Parking meters were such a novelty when first installed in Downtown Boise in 1940 that the Idaho Statesman ran a feature story titled "Lesson No. 1: How to Use Parking Meter." The reporter treated the innovation with humor. When the pipe bases on which the meters were to be mounted were in place, he thought the streets would look like "an uncompleted dairy farm. The fence posts will be there, but the fence will be missing."

Parallel parking was not part of the plan. Instead, the metered spaces were to be at right angle to the curb, between yellow lines 20 feet apart. "Whether you park your car on the east or west, north or south side of Boise streets, the parking meter will appear in the vicinity of the right front wheel of your car — provided you park within the yellow lines."

Mayor James Straight was a strong supporter of the innovation, but he would face plenty of opposition over the next few months, and find himself having to sell the notion of paid parking spaces to merchants and shoppers alike. Even before Boise's first 500 meters were officially ready for business on Monday, March 26, 1940, curious people were already dropping pennies and nickels into them to see if they really worked. The City Council had decided that the rate would be 12 minutes for a penny and an hour for a nickel. Paying the toll would be required between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, but not on Saturday or Sunday. One-hour free parking zones outside the metered area would still be patrolled for violations by a policeman on a motorcycle with a sidecar.

On the Saturday before metered parking went into effect Mayor Straight received a letter signed by 126 downtown merchants saying they were opposed to the meters because they thought they would hurt business. The mayor countered with a press release pointing out that the council had studied the matter carefully and found that area farmers who did their shopping in Boise were the strongest group in favor of metered parking, because they all too often found that local shoppers had parked in all the available spaces. "To assume that the farmer will be opposed to the meters is to assume that the farmer's time and gasoline are not just as valuable as anyone else's," said the mayor. "More than any other group his car is on a city street to do business. In scores of other towns the farmer has shown his appreciation for meters. They save his nerves, his gasoline, his time and his fenders. By stopping double parking they may save his life as well. The meter is no longer an experiment, but a proven means of keeping space available for those who want to do business."

Despite the mayor's rhetoric, opposition continued to build. R.G. Cole, manager of the Idaho State Automobile Association, accused the mayor and council of rushing ahead without considering the opinions of those against parking meters. His letter said that his organization was "on record as opposed to the installation of parking meters in any city of the state of Idaho."

It would take many months for people to accept the new system, and for the Police Department to deal with violations, the commonest being parking overtime, although some drivers didn't put coins in the machines at all. When time had expired in those 1940 meters a bell rang and a flag went up.

Police Chief Austen Utley told the Statesman that his department's worst problem came from unknown vandals who stuck sticks, matches, and even chewing gum into the coin slots. He warned that the department had several persons under suspicion, and that if caught they would be prosecuted "to the fullest extent of the law."

Coins were collected from the meters for the first time on March 29, 1940. By year's end $22,500 in nickels and pennies had been collected. The city kept 25 percent of the take, the rest went to the Dual Parking Meter Co. of Oklahoma City, manufacturer of the machines. The contract included the provision that if the city fathers changed their minds about keeping the meters they still could keep the 25 percent of the money and send them back. In April merchants threatened to sue the mayor, City Council, and the manufacturer to test the legality of parking meters.

In the 1960s, you could still park downtown by feeding the meters a penny for 15 minutes and a nickel for an hour. When Police Chief Jack Barney persuaded the City Council to change the rate to 30 minutes for a nickel there was outrage, and some wrote letters of protest to the Idaho Statesman saying if the city was going to "rip off" citizens to that extent they'd never shop downtown again. Enforcing the parking laws continued to plague the police. By the summer of 1963 the city had 19,000 unpaid parking tickets. One man had accumulated 180 of them in 18 months and not paid on any. He ended up paying a fine of $360.

Some cities in Idaho have removed parking meters after trying them for a while, but it is unlikely that the capital city ever will. A few have been installed more for humor than revenue or lack of parking space. The one in front of the Owyhee County courthouse in Murphy comes to mind, and the one and only meter that Eagle ever had is now in that city's museum.