What do you do if it’s Saturday and you see the following instructions on a parking meter? “Hours of operation 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday” and “No fee required Sundays and holidays.”
If you’re reader Alex of Newton, who encountered those messages on a meter on Gloucester Street near Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay, you plug in a quarter for every 12 minutes you plan to stay. “Not a risk-taker, I fed the meter,” he wrote in an e-mail, asking, “So, what is one to conclude about Saturdays?”
I would have done the same — and would have been making an inadvertent donation to the city — but more on that in a moment.
To get a definitive answer, my first step was to turn to the city of Boston’s Parking Meters website, but that didn’t help. “Parking meters are in operation Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,’’ it says, offering nothing about exceptions.
Wondering if the meter Alex found displayed a mistaken message — like a coveted error card in a childhood pack of baseball cards — I looked for it myself on a Back Bay visit.
On Gloucester, I found a battery of meters bearing the same ambiguous messages, all leaving confusion about whether quarters are needed Saturdays.
They are not, according to James Mansfield of the Boston Transportation Department, letting me in on an open secret in free parking: The meters on the alphabetical streets forming the ladder rungs on the Back Bay map — Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester, and so on — do not have to be fed on Saturdays between Beacon Street and Commonwealth Avenue.
During the week, those meters end at 6 p.m. (as the instructions indicate) because the blocks convert to resident-only parking — as sidewalk signs make clear, declaring, “Resident permit parking 6 p.m. to 8 a.m.” That strikes a balance between opening the spaces for commercial activity on weekdays and preserving them for residents returning from work in the evening, Mansfield said. But it still doesn’t resolve the Saturday questions.
It turns out the city, in a compromise with residents, does not enforce the meters on those blocks on Saturdays so that people living in the area can park worry-free, just as they can (in more clearly marked fashion) on Sundays.
But why not spell it out more clearly on the meters?
“It’s pretty clear on the meter that it goes Monday to Friday. It does say, ‘Sundays and holidays’ [are free] because that’s a generic plate, and those days are always free” across the city, Mansfield said. “It doesn’t say ‘Saturday,’ but Saturdays are open.”
In other words, residents and the initiated understand, while visitors staying on the safe side keep making donations to the city.
Formally a typo
The same week Alex’s e-mail on meters arrived, a reader in Medfield reported an unambiguous typo on a sign at the entrance to the garage at Route 128 Station in Westwood. Parkers at the train station can pay with the same E-ZPass transponders used for paying highway tolls, a system formerly known as FastLane. Or, as the sign said, “formally” known as FastLane.
The reader, a sixth-grade teacher who asked that her name not be used, said she posed the error to her students, some of whom caught it. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to those who didn’t; not yet drivers, maybe they thought the new E-ZPass transponders were just dressier than their FastLane predecessors. (They are not, with the only difference being the identifying sticker, though a new generation of transponders arriving next year will be about one-third the current size.)
Sara Lavoie, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said the Westwood error was identified quickly after it went up about three weeks ago, and was changed the next day. The mistake was believed to be a one-off, and the cost was limited to labor and materials, with the sign produced in-house, Lavoie said.
Let me know if you spot other errors on signs; if it’s safe to do so, take a picture.
Eric Moskowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.