The meter on the right shows a 10, but it’s within seconds of being expired.
The meter on the right shows a 10, but it’s within seconds of being expired.

For all those who love to complain about the cost of parking in downtown Princeton, here is a small consolation: did you know that every time you deposit your hard-earned dimes and quarters into one of those hated parking meters, you’re actually getting an extra 10 minutes of parking — free?

Whether it’s one of the meters with a 30-minute limit (easily identifiable by their yellow tops) or the more common two-hour meters (with gray tops), there is a built-in grace period of 10 minutes. If you pay for 60 minutes of parking, it will be a full 70 minutes before the green indicator ticks over to red and beckons the dreaded meter man to your car.

It’s a great deal! Or is it?

Like a lot of free things, it turns out there are a few catches to those 10 free minutes that even some longtime residents don’t know. First is the way the time is measured. After your allotted time expires and the meter hits 0, it starts counting backwards to -10 — so when, say, you have three minutes left in your 10-minute grace period, your meter will read -7.

The trouble comes when you mistake that -7 for a plain 7. You assume that means you have 7 minutes left (or 17 minutes if you know about the grace period). So when you return five minutes later to your car, you find a $40 parking ticket flapping under your windshield wipers.

Turns out that, with no other visible changes to the meter once time goes past 0, that little negative sign can be awfully hard to see.

And also like a lot of free things, certain restrictions apply. A Harrison Street resident, Michael Diesso, fired off a letter to the editor after he discovered that the grace period no longer is in effect at one lot directly across from the Princeton Public Library. As Diesso wrote:

Recently I was issued an overtime parking violation in the Griggs Corner parking lot. It turns out that the new “improved” parking meters no longer grant a 10-minute grace period, unlike all of the other meters in Princeton. The ticket was issued at 11:59 a.m.; I was back at the car at 12:01 p.m.; missed it by two minutes, well within the 10-minute grace period that is no longer granted.

I discovered this the next day when I walked to the lot, found an expired meter and deposited a nickel. The meter displayed 2 minutes, counted down to 1 minute, then expired — no grace period.

However, I noticed that the 2 minutes seemed to go by too quickly, so I deposited yet another nickel and timed the countdown with my watch. The display started at 2 minutes as before, but in only about 40 seconds went to 1 minute, then 60 seconds later displayed “Expired.”

Then I did the math: the rate is $1.75/hour, which translates to 20.57 seconds per penny/cent. So a nickel actually buys you 5 times that, i.e., 103 seconds, which is 1 minute and 43 seconds. Therefore although the meter displays 2 minutes, it actually gives you only 1 minute and 43 seconds.

A worse case occurs if one deposits 15 cents. In that case the display shows 6 minutes, but you only get 5 minutes and 9 seconds. So in the time it takes you to make a note of the time and walk away thinking you have 6 minutes, you actually have 5. Makes it easy to get an overtime parking violation.

In happier news there are some times when parking is really, truly free. For example, most meters don’t need to be paid before 8 a.m. or after 8 p.m.

On Sundays many metered spots are free, and those that are in effect only have to be paid from 1 to 8 p.m. (you can thank the church-goers for that one). Because Nassau Street — or Route 27 — is technically a state road, meters there are free all day on Sundays. Also free all day is the lot behind Princeton United Methodist Church, accessible from Vandeventer Ave­nue and Park Place.

Those willing to walk a little further will be rewarded with free, or at least less expensive parking. The marked spots on Pine Street — the little one-way street running from Nassau to Spruce, right around the corner from Small World Coffee and Blue Point Grill — are free, always. Some Princeton University lots, including the one on William Street behind the Lewis Center at 185 Nassau Street, are free to the public on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays. Sounds like a great deal.

The meters on William Street and Prospect Avenue are at least slightly less expensive — starting at $.75 an hour rather than the $1 or $1.25 closer to the central business district. They are also available for longer durations: up to 10 hours, rather than the two-hour limit on many meters downtown.

To those for whom just the thought of navigating the Princeton parking scene is migraine-inducing, this may be information overload. But if parking meters have piqued your interest (or you have a ticket to pay) visit princetonparking.org for more.