The Meter is Running in the Forest

October 2, 2010

When it comes to complaining about parking meters, I don’t seem to be alone. Everybody from the occasional city visitor to the main street regulars has something to say about how the city collects minute-by-minute rent of parking spaces.

Parking meters are the new kids on the block compared to toll roads, which are another way that governments (and sometimes private companies) collect what amount to ‘user-fees’ from travelers. If you hate parking meters, blame Carl Magee, who invented them. The first parking meter appeared on the streets of Oklahoma City, OK, in 1935.

Why do we have parking meters? Municipalities like to say that they are a way to enforce the parking regulations that are in place to benefit the public. They discourage automotive loitering to keep spaces open in the center of town for drivers picking up a little something for grandma at the candy shop.

But in the end I suspect it’s less about the enforcement and more about collecting the money. After all, it’s not cheap to pave and clean the streets, manage the stormwater, turn on the streetlights, and provide public safety. All of which we enjoy when we journey downtown in any New Hampshire city.

Which doesn’t stop me and other from complaining, of course. We like to complain about the inconvenience of parking meters. If you’re late for an appointment and out of quarters, dimes or nickels, what are you to do? Some regular downtown parkers just hedge their chances by never putting money in the meters, knowing that once in a while they will get a ticket. They figure that at the end of the year they’ll be out of pocket no less money after they pay their fines. And if they get lucky, they’ll be ahead. It’s kind of like going bare on insurance, only with a lot less to lose.

But lately municipalities like Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth have installed new technology, the so-called ‘pay and display’ meters that take credit cards as well as coins. My ‘gee I didn’t have a quarter’ excuse is done for. I call them “pay with dismay’ meters. People who don’t like how long it takes to use the new machine called the “pay with delay”.

The good news is that tickets with time left on them are good for any parking space. I’m hoping to start selling my leftover time to the guy pulling in next to me as I’m leaving—I could never pull that off with traditional meters. I fully expect to see ticket brokers soon—guys on the street corners buying and selling the leftover time and clearing a margin. Isn’t that what they do on Wall Street?

So why on earth am I writing about city parking meters in a column called Forest Journal? Because parking meters are one way that we accept paying a fee for our use of a high-demand service. We understand that monetizing the parking space is a way to pay for its existence.

Sadly, we have not yet come close to doing the same with our natural resources. Most of us go about our lives using breathable air and drinkable water, in particular, without thinking too much about where they come from or how soon we might run out if we don’t protect our forests. We eat without wondering about the fertility and availability of our soils.

In effect, we are parking in our forests without putting much money in the meter. One day we will turn on the tap at the sink and wonder why nothing comes out.

Part of the issue is how we talk about it. Conservationists call things like clean air and water ‘ecosystems services’, which sounds like a fancy name for a honeywagon business—‘We’re number one in getting rid of number two.” Another term used to assign economic value to nature is ‘biodiversity banking’, which makes me think of checking accounts for squirrels, with little Acorn ATMs.

At the Forest Society, we currently try to keep it pretty simple. In New Hampshire, our quality of life depends on our forests—and not just for tourism and timber, but for all of those ‘ecosystem services’. So we work to make sure we will always have forests because we think it’s too important to hedge our chances. And so what we suggest is that those who use those services put some money in the meter.

Jack Savage is the editor of Forest Notes: New Hampshire’s Conservation Magazine, which is published quarterly by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. He can be reached at