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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Mobile payments for car parking - awful user experience

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.....


Anonymous said...

Hi Dean... I heard the person responsible for this on the radio a while back.

It turns out Westminister really don't want people to drive into that part of London. So there's no incentive to make it easy to park or pay to pay for it...

He more or less said they're trying to make it awkward. Sounds like they suceeeded!

Neil Herron said...

Interested in your analysis. We are aware of the potential for fraud and are investigating the set up, operation and failings. It could well mean that every motorist who has failed to pay correctly or has had a ticket may be entitled to refunds as well as the security / fraud issues involved.
Neil Herron

Paul Jardine said...

As you say, the question is why they aren't using premium SMS as the way to pay - Oh, except that the operator will take 40-50% of that charge whereas credit cards only take 3-5% or less if a debit card.
The operators have priced themselves out of this market, but perhaps they have as much incentive as Westminster to make it easy and cheap to implement these services.
I had a thought that it would be a good use for 2D barcodes, though there would need to be a number too for those without camera phones. If you just text the space number and your registration number to an SMS short code, it would certainly be simpler.

Anonymous said...

That's nothing! 10 March, my wife and I drove into central London to return faulty electrical goods and knew nothing of this phone parking system.

I called the number several times - the first was a really bad line, but after that the system didn't recognise my button presses - repeating the instructins over and over agian.

I spoke with a warden about it and he just shrugged his shoulders, said 'sorry' and walked off.

Given the traffic and the fact that I'd probably spent a few pounds on the calls already, not to mention the fact that I need to park for 20 mins or so, we gambled - and lost. I'm guessing the unhelpful warden was just biding his time...

I sent an email 3 days later and subsequenty received a 'notice to owner' for £100. When I enquired as to my email, I was told they didn't receive it, even though I have electronic proof of having sent it from my work email to the correct address and having receive no report of sending failure.

Out of principle we decided to fight it, but all we got was 'rotocol' rubbish before the baillifs were set onto us and in the end we had to pay up at least £150.

Perhaps this Neil Herron bloke can shed some light on this as I intend to take it up again. The whole episode was an absolute joke.

Westminister mucst have made a mint out of this scheme from those both without knowledge of it and those, like my parents who also ended up paying a fine, who have no phone and would rather take the chance than the alternative which is to pay £10 at the nearest NCP.

The fact that you can still pay cash is news to me, so it would be to everyone else - unless more/different signs have been erected since.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your analysis. However there must be some positive aspects if I see solutions such as Crandy (www.crandy.com) in Belgium, where you don't pay a premium SMS, where you can extend your tickets, stop it and being reimbursed, be informed before the end of the parking, etc. Many services that justify to replace the coin with your mobile.