One of my typically sarcastic tweets seemed to chime with people last week.

Parking apps are becoming like Tribbles in the UK. They’re cute and fluffy on the outside, but pose a distinct risk of overpopulating your smartphone. Unlike Tribbles, the also mostly offer a truly terrible user experience.

They provide a good case study in a topic I’ve talked about many times over the years, the stages of digitisation of a service. And at the moment they are mostly, very distinctly, at a place where they’ve done little more than replicate a previously paper-based process.

In the days before parking apps, car parking ran in a few ways.

There were parking meters, where each space (usually roadside) would have a machine that would take your money and display to you (and a parking warden) whether you still had “rented” that space or not.

There were pay-and-display devices that would allow you to obtain a ticket to display in your car window to show for how long you had rented the space. It’s essentially parking meters without all the meters.

There were pay-on-exit (pay-on-foot) systems where you’d be issued a ticket on entry to a car park and then have to pay money at the point you were going to leave which would be calculated on the length of your stay.

And just occasionally there would be parking spaces that you could use for free.

Most parking apps have simply replaced the operating model of the meter or pay and display model. Any every parking provider seems to have plumped for a different provider.

The user experience of these services is almost uniformly awful, but because you end up with so many (I’ve now got 7, some people have even more), they are all awful in different ways. They also all require you to providing some sort of payment method. I don’t know about you, but I just love giving my debit card details to complete strangers.

In most cases the outcomes of the way in which these services work could be more easily (and more anonymously) achieved with a machine in the car park. The one advantage over the machine is the ability to extend the length of your visit remotely (whereas otherwise you’d have to get a new ticket from the pay and display machine).

One of the apps, Glide, is a bit more advanced. It uses automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) at the car park to record your entry and exit, and then automatically bills the right amount based on your stay. This could however all be achieved with a website, similar to the way in which the Dartford Crossing operates (as an aside, how long can a government Web service stay in Alpha?).

Why is this? Well, primarily because the needs that these various products are serving aren’t those of the end user. They are those of the parking operator. There’s plenty of competition at the B2B level, so the poor consumer ends up with a folder full of crap apps.

From an end user’s perspective, understanding where to park based on location and availability would be useful. Being able to guarantee a parking space in a location on a particular date would be useful. Not having to worry about registering for a dozen apps would be useful.

But even at a parking provider’s level (and many of them are local authorities) the lack of real evolution in these apps is hampering opportunities to reduce pollution or reduce traffic congestion. Intelligently routing motorists to particular parking locations through pre-booked but dynamically allocated spaces, for example.

In many sectors, there’s a distinct pattern to digitisation. You start by aping the analogue world, and only then do people start to innovate with the opportunities that being in the digital realm offers. Parking still has a long way to go…

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