Berkeley’s parking meters are failing all over town

Mary Spicuzza, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 04, 2002

is muscular arm covered up to the elbow in massive, ink-stained gloves, delivery driver Jose Gomez pointed toward a long row of his nemesis — Berkeley’s parking meters. More specifically, Berkeley’s broken parking meters. 

“I’ve been victimized by them,” said Gomez, a seven-year veteran courier who blames a glove compartment full of tickets on malfunctioning meters. “They’re just deceased, dead. There are more in Berkeley than in the other cities. I don’t know how many.”  

Neither does the city of Berkeley, but its been counting. And it says that vandals are to blame for the rising numbers of broken meters in town that costs the city about $1 million each year. That’s why police recently announced an “enhanced enforcement” program to prevent vandalism. 

What makes the police suspect vandals? 

“Foreign objects placed in meters,” Lt. Bruce Agnew of Berkeley’s traffic bureau said. “Basically, we find anything that fits in that coin slot. You name it.” 

Agnew said the new enforcement program means the department is committed to stricter surveillance of its parking meters, especially in “harder hit” areas downtown and near campus. 

But last week, one month after police launched the program, streets on the north side of the UC Berkeley campus showed severe meter malaise. A row of six broken meters lined one side of Euclid Avenue, some covered with plastic bags, others with masking tape. A note taped to one malfunctioning meter read, “Out of Order. This meter steals money!” Across the street another read, “Broken smokin.”  

Thirty-two meters out of 55 counted near the Hearst-Euclid intersection were broken. All flashed “FAILED” and showed a “P” with a diagonal line through it.  

Cars had slipped in front of nearly all of them. 

Across campus on Bancroft Way, the meter malfunction epidemic was even worse. In a two-block south campus area between Telegraph Avenue and Ellsworth Street, 31 meters flashed FAILED. Seven persisted. 

Two women were buckling an infant into the car seat of their SUV, which was parked in front of a broken meter near campus. 

“It’s great when they’re broken,” said Maria, who declined to give her last name. “Then you can park for free.” 

That’s what she thinks. But Gomez, the mail courier could tell her otherwise. Officer John Walker suspects a lot of drivers feel like Maria, but they’re wrong. Walker, a parking enforcement representative, tickets cars in front of broken meters. Especially when drivers leave them there for hours.  

“We chalk the tires, and ticket them if they exceed maximum time,” he said, reaching for a bright green parking ticket envelope and walking toward a truck parked illegally on Telegraph Avenue. 

Now the city hopes to pass an amendment to the Berkeley Municipal Code that will allow multiple citations to drivers who continuously overstay posted time limits, at both broken and functioning meters. Police say they hope it will make breaking meters less appealing. 

Despite what seems to be a growing epidemic, talk of broken meters in Berkeley is nothing new. The problem gained national attention two years ago, after an 11-year-old girl challenged a parking ticket she and her mother received on a visit to Berkeley. During an ensuing science project she found nearly 30 percent of the city’s meters were broken—and short-timing people.  

Inspired by Berkeley’s meter trouble, the girl, Ellie Lammer, helped pass “The Lammer Law,” which gives counties in California the right to monitor city meters for accuracy. 

“I would say they’re lazy,” UC Berkeley student Johanna Rohr said, when asked about Berkeley’s perennial broken meters. “I think they just need to get new meters” 

While walking to class yesterday morning, the 22-year-old economics major said she got one ticket because of a broken meter, and now leaves signs when she parks in front of them. Rohr said parking on Shattuck Avenue is much easier, thanks to its newer meters. 

The newer “Reino” meters, made by an Australian meter manufacturer, are multi-space meters and specially designed to be tamper resistant. But Berkeley police say vandals, not technology, are to blame.  

Berkeley’s Lt. Agnew said the damaged “Duncan” meters are only three years old, and he believes they would be fine if it weren’t for the numerous foreign objects people jam inside of them. Police said it’s become much more common than the older strategy of chopping off meter heads. Vandals beheaded several hundred years ago, but that was before jamming the coin slots became the popular technique. 

Have officers caught anyone in the act since its enhanced enforcement program began?  

“I’m not aware that we have,” Agnew said. “I don’t know how much time we have spent so far. But it’s something we are going to do.” 

Others doubt that Berkeley’s meter problems can be blamed on criminal activity. UC Berkeley Graduate student Gabriel Spitzer said he spent “a lengthy period of time” looking for a parking space yesterday morning, and checked to make sure the meter was working. But he said that once he dropped his coins into its slot, the meter “self-destructed and started yelling fail, fail, fail.” 

“They say it is people who are sabotaging the things,” Spitzer said. “But in reality, they don’t need anyone’s help to break.”