Technology is advancing all over downtown Milwaukee these days, stomping the old and stodgy like so much forgotten sausage. Bright blue steel undergirds the new long ramps of the Marquette Interchange 2.0, replacing the crumbling grey concrete of a more dangerous era. The outside of City Hall is covered head to foot with a cloak of scaffold, as the old bricks of the historic building are replaced with newer and, we assume, better bricks. All over town, more and more public places are under the steady gaze of silent video sentinels, watching our every move like mysterious owls, ready to sweep down the moment lines are crossed or improper proposals are made.
And, on the main and side streets of downtown, where the rubber meets the road and the commuter/visitor looks for a wayside to enable his/her temporary stay, not-so-old digital parking meters are being replaced by numbered signs. The signs – caste in a classic font, as if your car is not so much in a parking space as in a temporary address – bear no explanation of how to rent the formerly-metered space. But with a glance left or right on the adjoining sidewalk you will find a kiosk of hope; an enabling receptacle for your coins, bills or, god help us, credit cards.
This is progress, or so they say. Parking meters existed at the head of your car. If there was time left from the last parker, it said so. Upon successful insertion, the meter provided the instant gratification of time (precious time!) added in increments of 3, 6 or 15 minutes (6, 12 or 30 west of the freeway) for your hard-earned nickel, dimes and quarters, respectively. Just the tactile sensation of the light button on the side of the slot and the coin falling through brought a sense of accomplishment with the real reward of civic contribution and guaranteed ticket-free stop-time.
Trips to downtown – especially around the Courthouse, my regular haunt every morning – seem stressful enough for those who are, sadly, not as familiar as some of us with the ins-and-outs of downtown living. The precious parking spot next to the library on 9th Street secured, the Courthouse visitor can usually be found at the head of the car, searching through pockets for change (no pennies!) and discovering, like a cheap-ticket customer at Miller Park reeling at concession prices, that a quarter only gets you 15 minutes. You pay what you have, you hope, you pray.
Now the irregular visitor will have to deal with the radically-changed paradigm of mysterious number signs. What to do, what to do?
I had my first experience this week with my soon-to-be meterless world. Although usually confident at doing the Downtown Park, I pulled into my first numbered rental space like a novice – somehow, I even had trouble with what is otherwise a fairly routine parallel-park. After three tries, I was in and strangely unsteady.
The first thing I realized is that I had no idea if I had to give the City any money at all for what would be a fairly brief stay in space 1146. At a meter in the middle of the day, it was a better than 50% chance that I would be able to ride the coattails of the previous parker – who has not felt the heart-lifting feeling of "time on the meter"? No more. Even though the previous parker may have paid for two hours and left after 10 minutes, there was no way of knowing that. I approached the ATM-like pay station several spaces over and got ready for the New Way.
The box consisted of a small digital screen and a keypad. Nothing seemed to be activated. A sign on the box advised me to "touch any key to start". Decisions, decisions. I chose the 3 key, hoping for the best. Sure enough, the screen lurched to life and what I’m sure was a lovely panorama of the City appeared on the digital screen for about 5 seconds as the machine got its bearings. I couldn’t really see it, since it was hardly my eye level – the machines are meant to be accommodating, as they should be, and the height accommodated appears to be 4'6" ("Daddy, Daddy, let me do it!"). Anyway, after the unnecessary advertisement for the City (like ads running on the monitors at Target – hey, I’m here already!), I was asked for my space number. OK, easy enough for me, but I worry about those possibly forgetful people at the end of the block – do we have to take notes coming out of the car now? Is it a defense to a ticket that I got the number wrong and rented a space somewhere ten blocks away?
The space number successfully entered (I hope), the robot box has a question: do I want to add time to whatever is there already or buy fresh time? Well, how would I know? Is there time already on the damn thing (see above)? Maybe there was an answer available, but I didn’t feel like looking for it. I chose "new time" and fed the box the same quarter I would have jammed into the meter 5 minutes ago.
It recognized the coins just fine and I pushed "end" or whatever I had to do to get out of this digital transaction. "Receive receipt below", except there was no receipt forthcoming. Ooops, must be out of paper. I left having no idea whether I had accomplished anything of value at the kiosk. I tried to imagine how these probably fragile machines will do in the dead of winter. I came back in ten minutes fully expecting to see a ticket on the car.
Look, I’ve seen those guys who run around emptying the meters once a week. I know it is cheaper for the city to have those (no doubt fewer) workers have to hit only 2 machines on a block rather than 50. I’m sure the machine has some sort of wireless read-out so the ticket-writers don’t even have to squint at the meters to see if it’s expired. Efficiency in city services is a wonderful thing and I’m sure the company who pitched this to the city will be patted on the back by someone somewhere for a job well done.
But, sometimes, progress ain’t worth it. We lose something of the city’s soul when we lose the parking meter to the supposedly better angels of effectiveness and cost-saving. Would it kill us to hang on to the individual meters and all the inefficiencies that surround them for the sake of a few more jobs and a more human downtown experience? When a meter fails or doesn’t take the coins, you can kick it and hammer on it until it works (not that I’d ever do that or anything...). Kick one of the new pay stations, and you’ve just wiped out the parking memory for hundreds.
Bob Dylan famously wrote: Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters. Well, too late for that. What do we do now?