Chicago Wants to Keep the Change

Chicago is testing a coinless parking meter system, The Tribune reported yesterday. You might think that would be great for consumers, eliminating annoyances like the hunt for coins and the need to pay for more time than you actually use.

It's true, drivers would no longer have to plug the meter with change. But apparently the City of Chicago considers parkers' tendancy to overpay more of a feature than a bug. In fact, the city is apparently so consumer-hostile that it plans to keep parkers' overpayments and charge the next customer for the very same time.

Here's how it works: You park at an electronic meter. Just like at a coin meter, you have to estimate how long you'll leave your car there and pay in advance. Even though it would be just as easy for the machines to debit your account for the exact amount of time you parked after you pull out. You pay for 30 minutes, you stay for 20, you leave and the city pockets 10 minutes' worth of unused parking time.

But wait, it gets better -- for the city, not for you. With a coin meter, someone else might come along and use up the time you paid for. But with the new meters, the slate is wiped clean when you leave, and the next customer pays.

In his column, the Trib's Chicago revenue director Bea Reyna-Hickey as saying the city loses "countless thousands of dollars" due to people "piggybacking at the meter."

Really? You are losing money because you're not able to sell the same parking time to two different customers?

I'd say citizens of Chicago -- and those who just park there -- shouldn't let the city keep the change.

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Guest's picture

The parking meter users of Montreal discovered this interesting 'feature' a few years ago when similar meters were installed in the city. An interesting hack has been that people with time left on the meter would leave their time stamped receipt on the numbered placard informing the next user how much time is remaining. Another interesting way to use this to your road raged advantage is if someone steals the spot you are trying to pull into, you can note the slot number, calmly drive off, then add $.25 to their meter to reset the time. They may get a ticket, but you can feel vindicated for their thievery.

Guest's picture
J.M. Jacob

quote: the city loses "countless thousands of dollars" due to people "piggybacking at the meter."

How do they know what they are losing?

Guest's picture
Eric Monse

In New Brunswick I saw and even used these. It makes sense.

Guest's picture

I get the feeling that the writers in Wise Bread must all be city dwellers, because only in a large city would you be forced to park at a meter. In most smaller cities there might be meters in the core areas of downtown, but very often there is free on-street parking only two or three blocks away (and many of us could use the exercise). And small cities have often found (sometimes too late) that parking meters have contributed to killing their downtown - given a choice to drive to the downtown department store where you have to feed the meter (AND pay a ticket if you are inadvertently delayed in getting back to your vehicle) and going to the big box store on the outskirts of town - well, that would be a no-brainer for most people that were not born and raised in a big city.

I actually lived in a city that killed their downtown by refusing to remove the meters. They still had a thriving downtown when I first lived there, with a Woolwort's, a Kresge store, and a JC Penney's all on the same block. Then Kresge decided to build a K-Mart about a mile down the road, and of course it had free parking. The anal retentive city council, despite the pleas of local residents, some downtown merchants, and at least one of their own council members, not only refused to remove the downtown meters, but actually ordered new ones. The result is that today the downtown area is like a ghost town (even if you look at it on Google Earth, you see lots of open spaces where stores used to be) while the outlying areas of the city are going strong - there is even a large strip mall at the city limits that includes a Wal-Mart.

Anyone who is opposed to urban sprawl ought to see parking meters as the devil's own invention. It's not just that people are too cheap to feed the meters (and I will gladly admit to being in that category myself), but it's also the uncertainty of how long you may be inside a business. Run into an extra long line inside a store, or see a friend and have a chat, and suddenly you may find yourself with an expensive parking ticket. Why invite that hassle, when you can drive a bit further and often find better prices, and a bigger selection of merchandise?

And as for Chicago double billing for the same time, why would that surprise you? (Insert obligatory Chicago corruption joke here). Chicago really is one of the more corrupt American cities, in my personal opinion. My dad was raised there and it affected him deeply, to the point that he was afraid to speak out about any injustice or to get on anyone's bad side. You couldn't possibly pay me enough to live in Chicago, or any of the nearby suburbs.

Guest's picture

This is actually not a problem for city dwellers, but for people who visit the city who come from somewhere else. If they had any sense, they would use public transit, like city dwellers do. Instead, they drive in from suburbia when they should have taken the train.

Urbanites tend to have other parking problems (like paying $50k or more for a parking spot) or they don't have a car at all.

Guest's picture

If the city can meet the budget with my extra 15 cents, more power to them.

Guest's picture

It makes sense for the city, but I agree that technically, the city is not losing any money to piggybacking meter users. Imagine a sports team or concert venue trying to sell the same seat twice. There would be a lot of ticked off people!

Guest's picture

The first time I ever saw it was in Montreal, and it makes sense from the city's point of view.

In response to the first poster: that's what we do in Montreal (LOL) .. pay for it, and whatever's left, and take the ticket, and tuck it at the parking meter for the next person. We've done that a couple of times and if it helps the next person - all the power to them...

Guest's picture

In Portland Oregon they have already gone to the new machines. The nice part is you can take your time with you. The problem is they can track your car and even if you leave and come back later, tag it for parking too long on a block.

Andrea Karim's picture

A fair number of us are, but we have some rural and suburban peeps, too.

I guess the same thing happens in Seattle, but I hadn't thought about it being unfair. I was jsut so happy to be able to pay with my debit card.

Guest's picture
Rosalie Bowman

I'm really bummed to hear this and hope that the practice doesn't catch on in any more cities. In our small Pennsylvania city, I love to overpay the meter in hope that someone will be able to take advantage of the free parking after I vacate the spot. It's a small kindness, I know, but sometimes it's the little things that make a big difference in a person's day. Electronic meters would totally ruin that for me!

Guest's picture

I think this is absolutely disgusting and, sadly, sounds very much like my city. *Sigh.*

Guest's picture

More money for city government, less hassle for consumers, and you get something to gripe about. Everyone wins!!


Guest's picture

Just another incentive to ditch the car & use public transit or better yet, walk. You do NOT need a car in the city of Chicago & probably should be strongly discouraged from driving & parking in downtown Chicago.

This would be better for you, your wallet & the environment.

Carrie Kirby's picture

OK, I did live in Chicago. Now I live in Oak Park. And yeah, I walked to many things around my neighborhood. And yeah, I almost always take the El or Metra to go downtown because parking and congestion are too difficult down there.

 But for neighborhood to neighborhood trips? Sorry, but most people just can't or don't want to ALWAYS take the El. Or should I say, the %&@! El? Are you aware that most El stations have no elevators? Which is really fun if you happen to be pregnant and  trying to transport toddlers at the same time. SOMETIMES people offer to help a pregnant woman with kids haul a stroller down the stairs.


I blog at

Guest's picture

I lived in Chicago for 9 years and can say without reservation that it's a very hostile city for residents. The city no longer collects fees from its citizenry to promote the good and ensure services, now it collects fees for the sake of collecting fees. As a resident, you are always discovering the new, creative and painful ways the city disrespects its taxpayers and reaches further into your wallet.