Parking in the UK is a big business. In 2015-2016, according to research undertaken by the RAC Foundation, UK local authorities charged motorists in excess of £1.5bn and generating a cash surplus of around £0.75bn for parking their cars.
But the process of paying for parking is a ramshackle and expensive affair. There are pay and display services (where you have to guess how long you’ll need to leave your car and pay accordingly upfront) and pay on foot services (you take a paper ticket and then settle up at a machine before you collect your vehicle). In private car parks there is experimentation with numberplate recognition systems, and it’s still not that uncommon to find a person in a booth taking money as you enter into a site (old school tourist attractions, from recent experience).
The tendrils of digital technology are starting to creep in, and there is often now the opportunity to pay by phone, whether through text, phone call, or one of the mobile app services that appear to be popular with local authorities – Ringgo, PayByPhone and ParkMobile seem to be the main players at the moment.
This should be a win/win for both motorists and councils.
The convenience of not having to worry about carrying change for payments, and being able to top up time as it’s needed should make paying for parking easier. Reducing the need to maintain street-installed parking machines and the associated costs of collection of irritating small lumps of metal from them must be a cost saver for the councils.
But the experience is marred by duff business models. Every transaction on these services seems to incur a surcharge for the motorist, and at a not insubstantial 20-30p a pop. Sometimes doubling the cost to the motorist for a short stay.
What’s going on? How is a service that should be orders of magnitude cheaper to deliver incurring additional costs? And why aren’t local authorities using digital to transform how parking works much more fundamentally – using digital technology to help shape traffic flows through the use of nudge pricing, for example?
The gap between understanding how digital technology can be procured, and how it can be used transformationally is huge. Bunging an app on top of an existing paper process is digital-washing, giving the air of change without anything really different happening underneath.
The challenge, though, in government (Local and Central) is that doing things that are more radical than a bit of digital washing involve aligning technologists, administrators, policy makers and politicians. And that’s not only very hard, but in the currently climate akin to nailing jelly cats into a herd-like pattern on the wall.