Driven round the bend by cashless parking

Last weekend I asked FT readers to regale me with their experiences of navigating the digital parking superhighway, and was nearly mown down in the rush.

Coin-fed meters are largely a thing of the past due to the general decline of cash (and the cost of handling it) but even machines that take card and contactless payments are expensive to service and maintain.

Cash-strapped local councils are the biggest providers of on-street parking. It’s much cheaper for them to scrap meters altogether and strike a deal with one of several digital parking apps. But what if drivers don’t have a smartphone, or are not “digital natives”?

I was alerted to this problem via a tweet from the journalist Pete Paphides. His 84-year-old father phoned him from a car park in a state of panic. There was no meter, and he could not work out how to pay via an app. The automated phone service to pay by credit card was equally confusing.

He asked his son to go online in the hope of contacting a human being and avoiding a parking fine. Some chance! Sadly, he died soon afterwards, leaving his son to sort out the inevitable letter from a debt collector.

“It does rather break my heart how difficult we’ve made it for old people to go about their daily business and how we terrorise them for the crime of not knowing how to download a fucking app,” Paphides tweeted.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital push, with everything from benefit claims to banking and GP appointments moving to an “online first” model. Yet not everybody can keep up or afford the necessary tech.

Digital exclusion should be a growing concern amid the cost of living crisis. Connectivity in rural areas is another issue (try paying for parking if you can’t get a signal) so we still need to provide “hybrid” access to vital services, even if this comes at a cost.

However, FT readers had plenty of other concerns about the digital parking revolution. From the 200 responses I received, the biggest gripe was the sheer number of parking apps one needs to download.

The fragmented marketplace means many readers need six apps to cover their regular parking locations. One reader had nine (there’s another subset of apps for finding electric vehicle charging points and paying for these).

New face of parking: RingGo is the UK’s biggest cashless parking provider © In Pictures/Getty

This takes up space on your smartphone. If you haven’t used a particular app for a while, it could get “offloaded to the cloud” or require an update to be installed. This is frustrating if you’re in a hurry, especially if you suffer from another common e-parking nightmare — slow download speeds.

Plenty of readers have missed trains thanks to tech fails in railway station car parks. “I feel they are just a mechanism to impose fines,” said FT reader Martyn, smarting after being hit with a £60 penalty after struggling to pay.

If no actual meter exists, the back-up system of automated phone payments is clunky. You’ve got to register, punch in location codes, credit card numbers and your car registration (if you mix up the letter O with the number zero, expect a fine).

Some older readers told me they no longer visit certain car parks — even certain shopping locations — because they’ve had such challenging experiences. Another said her elderly mother phones her whenever she wants to park, adding: “I’ve turned into her digital PA”. One colleague had to use a parking app while she was in labour to enable her parents to stay in the hospital car park.

Of course, there are positives about parking apps. Being able to pay in a few taps while seated inside your car is undoubtedly more convenient than queueing up in the rain for a machine.

Readers praised the text message reminders some operators send (“Your parking expires in 10 minutes, click here to top up”) as there’s no need to race back to your car.

However, a few savvy readers have clocked that these digital “add ons” come at a price. “Why are the parking apps allowed to charge more than the parking ticket machines?” asks eagle-eyed FT reader Nigel.

He (and others) report being billed a “convenience fee” of 20p plus 10p per text-based acknowledgment or reminder. Thus, a £1 charge at a machine can commonly cost £1.40 via an app — even though cashless solutions are supposedly cheaper. Why?

I quizzed Peter O’Driscoll, the managing director of RingGo, the UK’s biggest cashless parking provider, about this.

The convenience fee is up to the local council, he says. If they don’t want ratepayers to swallow the cost of RingGo or others providing a digital service, they can elect to charge motorists 20p per parking transaction instead (other apps do this too).

Even so, digital parking apps invariably offer councils and car park operators a cheaper solution than companies that provide the pay and display machines, which explains why our streets contain fewer and fewer of them: “That’s up to councils, it’s not something we drive,” O’Driscoll says (no pun intended).

At least RingGo’s 10p text alert charges are optional: “For most people it’s worth the 10p — better pay that than pay a parking fine,” he adds.

App-based services might be better for the car park owner’s bottom line and more convenient for the tech savvy, but the analogue alternatives are much more inconvenient for those left behind.

Squinting as you punch your credit card number into a phone keypad; queueing up in the post office as your bank has closed; waiting on hold for ages to speak to a human being. It’s essentially saying: “You don’t generate enough profit as a customer for us to care about servicing your needs”.

The one exception to the digital rule is Nationwide, which pledged this week to keep all 625 of its UK branches open until 2024 at least. I’m sure this will win over more cash-rich elderly customers, but if the profits don’t follow, what will happen in 2025 is anyone’s guess.

Assuming they can afford a smartphone, educating our ageing population is another route. Three years ago, 30 per cent of RingGo customers paid via the “phone channel” but that’s now dwindled to 8 per cent.

Converts include O’Driscoll’s own 76-year-old mother. With some help, she has mastered the app and finds it much easier than the pay-by-phone service (from what I’ve heard about the latter, it’s hardly surprising).

But what about the faff of downloading so many apps? In future, if the UK moves towards the “multivendor” model common in many European countries, the piecemeal tender approach could go. Local authorities or private operators could instead open up the market by providing several phone parking solutions across one area.

Further into the future, you might not even need an app to park at all. Your in-car computer system will simply flash up “Do you want to pay for parking?” when you pull into a space.

This sounds like the height of convenience. But maybe you’ll need your children to explain how it works.

Claer Barrett is the FT’s consumer editor: claer.barrett; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb

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