Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Stop the misguided visionaries in Westminster Council before they do real damage

I thought this story must have been a joke when I first heard it. Apparently some bright sparks in London's Westminster Council are going to remove parking meters and instead rely on mobile phones for payments. The arguments, such as they are, suggest that it will be cheaper not to have to send people round to empty the meters, and it will be so much more convenient for the motorist, because they can for example add more time on by phone without going back to their car.

Unless there have been major usability improvements since I last was unfortunate enough to encounter Westminster's mobile payment parking process, I think this will be an unmitigated disaster. Clearly, saving money by axing parking attendants will be one benefit, but the real revenue will come in from fines for cars whose owners have failed to master the technology to book their slot. The usability of the scheme is so far away from acceptable that I'd be surprised if it doesn't result in a minor revolution (or the English equivalent thereof - a letter writing campaing to the Times).

Looking at the guidance material, it is clear that nothing has changed. The instructions for setting up payment are painfully complicated:

Call 0870 428 4009 and follow the touchtone prompts.
Using your phone keypad you will need to enter the following:
Your credit or debit card number
Card expiry date (2 digit expiry month, followed by 2 digit expiry year)
Card start date or issue number (debit card users only)
Vehicle registration number (VRN)*
*In order to enter your VRN, you need to press the key on your phone which displays the first character of your VRN followed by the number which represents the order it appears on that key. For example, for the letter ‘C’ you will need to press 2, followed by the number 3.

Have you got that? I had the unfortunate experience of trying out this mobile payments misery a few weeks ago, and after 5minutes of pain, gave up and went off to find a new non-mobile bay. Westminster Council helpfully provides a log-in option on their website to allow people to create accounts, and this seems to me the greatest ever folly. People who know about, and have registered in advance for the Westminster Council online membership scheme are probably locals, whereas logic suggests that the majority of those needing to pay for parking are from outside the borough, and have not the faintest idea of any of this.

I do applaud the ambition, and mobiles are wonderful things, but forcing people to use them when the technology and usability is not there, is just plain wrong. (As is assuming that everyone has them, and they haven't run out of battery or credit.)

We laugh at the futurists who expected all of us to be zooming round in our jetpacks by now; just because the technology is in place, it does not mean the experience is ready for the mainstream, be it in personal jet propulsion or mobile payments.

I do suspect that the secret agenda here is to make parking so terrifically complicated and painful, that people will leave the car at home. But if that is not actually the case, my suggestion would be to do as Oyster have been doing and trial NFC which seems a logical answer for mobile payments, and allow that to be an alternative channel, perhaps with a discounted rate to encourage adoption. Killing off cash at this stage would be premature, will unfairly penalized those with less tech savvy (am putting myself in that category) and, I predict, lead to far higher levels of pavement-rage, resulting in huge hospital bills that dwarf any short-term savings.

Westminster: Relent, before it's too late!


silpol said...

all this posting looks like UK has still to do whole parking-by-mobile convenient for humans, not only engineers ;) I mean, it might be quit good business actually ;)

Rupert said...

Yes, this is a credible idea by Westminster; the cashless (and big brother) society is upon us and in this case there are clear benefits to both the customer and the supplier.

Unfortunately as Stephen says the implementation seems poor and over complex.

Being Friday afternoon I came up with a couple of “better” ideas IMHO.

1) Add oyster card readers to meters so that you swipe in/swipe out to your parking space. A unified, cross London, transport charging scheme – brilliance! Also makes life much easier for businesses / delivery drivers who want an easy way to monitor/track transport costs.

2) An improvement on the existing idea: Instead of charging to credit cards - these micro payments could be charged to the user’s phone bill as simple text “PARK #space number# #duration#”. (Although at £4+ per hour you might argue we are leaving the realms of micro!)

Stephen Johnston said...

Great ideas both Rupert.
Perhaps you could volunteer to stand for election to Westminster Council and make it happen. (I doubt they read blogs somehow)
- Stephen

Mitch said...

As a small aside:

"*In order to enter your VRN, you need to press the key on your phone which displays the first character of your VRN followed by the number which represents the order it appears on that key. For example, for the letter ‘C’ you will need to press 2, followed by the number 3."

Hmm, Westmisnter. Full of business-types with your usual phones. Like Blackberry's, E61's (Full querty's), Windows Mobile (Touch screen) - how exactly do (What I'm sure hardly counts as a minority) these users fumble through the system? Surely alternatives, even a voice-recognition system, would be more usable?

silpol said...

hey, if your council wasn't smart enough and didn't follow your recommendation - there was way to save your time and put sequence of pushbuttons on old Nokia phones, so you ought to keep your VRN or CC stored and when you hear that /self-censored/ dialog, your phone can spit those dual-tones back to phone service automatically.

Anonymous said...

Phone parking has interesting potential but I do agree with Mitch and Rupert regarding the clunkiness of the Westminster interface. I can personally confirm it as unusable in the street environment on my Blcakberry 7100 phone which does not have the letters represented in the normal way as an overlay on the numeric keys.

Other more advanced solutions seem to be now appearing. I encountered and used "RingGo" 01202 232000 in Bournemouth during the summer! (the one sunny day in July) which works on speech recognition of numberplate.

It was still charging to a credit card though not the phone bill which actually I prefer as it is a work phone. The call was quite quick too in comparison with Westminster. Definitiely a step forward but I do like the Oyster idea though.

Anonymous said...


Harry said...

Pay-by-phone has been pushed in Westminster City Council, yet this form of payment is socially exclusive, towards people without mobile phones or credit cards, or do not want a mobile phone, or cannot get a credit card due to their status, an example being a 16 year old riding a moped who is now excluded from parking legally and is at risk of receiving a parking ticket.

This method of payment for parking services also goes against Dept. of Transport - Operational Guidance to Local Authorities: Parking Policy and Enforcement: Traffic Management Act 2004

"It is important that authorities do not introduce a system that inadvertently discriminates against some sections of the population. The system should allow motorists to pay by whatever method is most convenient to them, including: cash; cheques sent by post with out a cheque guarantee card; cheque supported by a cheque guarantee card at a payments centre; Sterling travellers' cheque; and debit or credit card in person, by phone or via internet"

It is also unfair to get people to pre-register with the scheme and store their details on computer systems that are not even in the UK.

Cameron Wood said...

Cllr Danny Chalkley should be thrown out of the Conservative Party! His ideas are not Conservative driven, they are driven by money making schemes, this payment system he has imposed on people is totally inconvenient.

Westminster is not like any other borough it is in the centre of London and has thousands of visitors... the population is 200,000 (Westminter Residents) yet the number of commuters is 500,000 so imagine what the amount of visitors and tourists would be!!! How are they going to pay to park?

What if my battery is dead? What if I an not fortunate to have a good credit history and have to use a pay-as-you-go phone which runs out of credit when I am halfway though shouting out my credit card number publicly on the side of the street?

What about people with hearing problem who cannot hear the automated phone service to pay?

And for what? This system is a hassle, it results in more unfair fines, people have to be dependent of a mobile phone, then use THEIR money to call the number and pay? Thus costing more than is initially advertised, cost of call, cost of charging battery, risk of standing on the street with mobile in one hand and credit card in the other while trying to read the very confusing signs Westminster have erected at taxpayers expense.


Anonymous said...

This doesn't surprise me. Westminster have recently introduced motorbike parking charges and the only way to pay is with a credit/debit card over the phone. I assume Danny Chalkey is getting a back hander from Verrus (the company behind the 'Pay by Phone' system) as their relationship is too close for comfort!