I've just had my first encounter with Westminster Council's new mobile parking payment system.
It sucks. Totally. Wearing my "mobile user" hat rather than my "analyst" hat, this was my first and hopefully last real-world encounter with mobile payments.
Basically, London's Westminster Council is fed up with people vandalising or stealing coins from parking meters, so it wants to reduce its amount of on-street payment equipment. Laudable & understandable on the face of it, but that's the only positive.
The system they've chose is for users to either phone or text the reference number of the parking bay and the length of time they want to stay. But the payment mechanism is via debit or credit card - and the first time you park, you have to call into an IVR system to set this up (or do it on the web if you're organised enough to sort it out before driving), and your car registration.
The first problem is the number - an 0870 premium-rate one, which isn't included in most mobile call packages, and which therefore costs an unknown extra amount to call. The second problem is being certain that some phisher hasn't swapped the signs over - how do I know that it's the correct IVR system, and not one that someone's set up to capture credit card details? The third thing is that I don't know who else is involved in running the system, and I really don't want to have my credit card # on file with the council - let's face it, local government authorities aren't always the most trustworthy institutions.
Once you're set up on the system, the next time you just have to SMS the location code, length of time and credit-card validation number. Which assumes you remember which card you've registered with, of course.
All of this must be a triple nightmare if you're a tourist using roaming, or if you use hire/share car systems with a different registration every time.
Then I thought "why on earth aren't they using premium SMS or some other mechanism that doesn't need a credit card to be set up?".
My first thought was that the council (quite reasonably) didn't want to involve mobile operators taking a cut of their revenues. As the end user, I certainly don't want to pay any more for subsidising my own inconvenience - it's much easier & quicker to put coins in a meter than faff around with texting. And I really don't want parking fees appearing on my mobile bill anyway.
Then another thought struck me - credit risk and complexity of integration with prepay billing. I seem to remember reading that the average prepay user only has £5-10 credit on average at any point in time - yet parking is £3 an hour up to a maximum of 4 hours. Given the high proportion of prepay users in the UK, this would mean many users having to first top up their account, before paying for parking - clearly nonsensical.
It also raises the issue of whether the whole amount is debited upfront, or drip-fed over the period of parking.
NFC approaches wouldn't work either - it would still need some equipment on the street to scan & print a ticket. And then you might just as well have a debit-card reader in it too, for people without NFC phones.
All in all, I reckon the most convenient form of mobile payment for parking remains the coin. It works, it's quick and there's no need to pay anyone else trying to shoehorn themselves in the value chain.
I'm not the only person who reckons the system's rubbish either. The UK's next-but-one Prime Minister has also experienced the same problem
On the bright side, all this confusion will probably lead to more parking fines & cars being towed. Given I'm also a Westminster resident, the extra cash should help lower my taxes.....