Seattle Municipal Archives

Why don’t parking meters accept pennies?

Dear readers,

Today’s question comes from Gianina in Savannah, GA.

“Why don’t parking meters accept pennies?”

If you live in a city, chances are that you have to deal with parking meters. For me, the times I need to park is the time when I conveniently don’t have any change. I inevitably end up playing the dice roll game where I run my errand quickly and hope for the best. Like the Game of Thrones, you either win or you die.

I try to keep change in my car, but when I grab for it, it’s just pennies! Arg! What useless currency! Right?

Right.

So why don’t parking meters take pennies? Why do we even have stupid pennies at all?

Well, the short answer is that meters used to accept pennies, but it doesn’t make much sense anymore.

See, it all goes back to why parking meters exist in the first place; to ration parking. The first parking meter became functional in Oklahoma City in 1935. The idea was to make the most useful spaces (those right outside of businesses) come at a premium. This means that those spaces become time-sensitive and people won’t linger too long. At the least, they’ll be conscious of how long they’ve been parked. It mostly doesn’t work that way anymore, because entire cities have become metered and the option is to walk very long distances or pay, sometimes all day.

The original intent was not to make revenue.

At that time, the value on our currency was a lot higher (at one point in US history, we even had the half-cent). It would have been natural to use pennies and nickels for payment, and meters did take pennies for a long time. Unfortunately, inflation has made these currencies a very low value. Which means that if our purpose of a meter is to ration parking, you need to charge more to adjust for said inflation. The bottom line is that it’s not economical to let someone park for an hour with 5 cents when you are trying to ration.

Additionally, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to allow pennies in a meter when the cost is so much higher, as the meters would fill so much faster.

Here’s an example imagining that everyone chose to use pennies in parking meters. In Savannah, GA, it costs about $1 an hour to park at a meter. If you are in a 2 hour space, that would mean you would be putting 200 pennies into a meter. Meters function from 8am-5pm downtown. So, if those meters accepted pennies, theoretically that would max out at 800 pennies per day, per meter. Those meters would need to be emptied constantly (probably hourly unless the meters were completely redesigned), which means more cost to the city for parking enforcement and meter maintenance. One meter’s worth of pennies for a day also weighs about 4.5 pounds. According to Savannah.com, the historic district of Savannah has roughly 3,000 parking meters. That would scale out to roughly 13 thousand pounds of pennies the city has to deal with each day. Granted most people will use other coinage, some meters take credit cards, and some have differing values. But in theory, we can start to see a real problem.

And how much time would a penny get you in a Savannah parking meter? At a typical meter in Savannah, the value of a penny would be about 36 seconds.

There is at least one city still embracing the penny parking meter: Sycamore, Illinois. They love their penny meters. It does the job of rationing parking and keeping people mindful of not loitering too long, but is affordable and easy. But this thing of the past might become a thing of the past. As it turns out, no one is making the timers for penny meters anymore. So when these meters break, that may be it.

Vending machines also don’t accept pennies anymore for very similar reasons to those above. Also, who would even be carrying enough pennies to add up to anything except maybe to equal a nickel or dime? I currently have a pile of coins from a week’s worth of shopping on my nightstand and the pennies add up to 11 cents.

So if we can’t use pennies in meters or vending machines and they’re heavy/worthless in your pocket, what’s the point?

A lot of people, including many in our government, would agree with you. Currently, due to the materials and processing, pennies cost more to create than their value (1.7 cents per penny!). The US Mint loses $55,000,000 or so a year on producing pennies. Nickels are even worse (8 cents!). There have been quite a few proposals to either get rid of the penny altogether, or make it worth 5 cents and eliminate the nickel coin. Can you imagine getting used to remembering that when you’re at the store? There’s a lot of debate on this topic, and I’ll let you do the reading on that on your own, if you so choose. Honestly, it seems like a good idea to me. If everything was set to round on cash transactions, it would essentially even out and wouldn’t cost the consumer more.

But for now, the penny is here and we have to deal with them clogging up our change jars. So what can you do with a penny?

  • Makeshift flathead screwdriver
  • Game tokens or counters
  • The copper in older pennies can reduce algae
  • Check the tread on your tires
  • Be really annoying and use them to pay for stuff
  • Cause a scene and use them to pay for stuff
  • Get a ticket for causing a disturbance using them to pay for stuff
  • Take them to a Coinstar machine and get real money (or use one of the ones at your bank to get even more money)
  • Craft with them (make a bowl made of pennies to hold your pennies)
  • Use them in your home to tile a backsplash or floor

And what about parking?

  • There’s an app for that. There are a few great apps for mobile devices that will track the time on your meter and help you remember where you parked. I recommend Honk or Parking Meter Pro.

That's my two cents,

Steven

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