Never Trust a Computer


Never Trust a Computer

It’s all my wife’s fault (she’s not in the room, so I can say this): There was a really good story in the news, but she threw out the papers before I could get the details. A motorist went into a car park using a modern state-of-the-art pay-on-foot system. He stayed for about four hours and went to pay the $10 fee when he was ready to leave. He used his credit card at a pay station, and instead of being debited the expected 10 bucks, the machine (nothing can go wrong …) charged him for 44 days parking, about $1,000.
Fortunately, he noticed, and the operator who agreed that there was an error refunded the money at once. But how many people would have spotted this before they got the bill at the end of the month? And how did the “foolproof” system make such an error and not spot it? I have become pretty blasé about checking small amounts on my credit card, but not any longer. The company concerned is currently getting into trouble because it is replacing on-site staff with remote monitoring from a central national control room; this case will not help their arguments that a warm body in the car park is an unnecessary luxury.
Meanwhile, in the London Borough of Croydon, a battle is brewing between the Council and on-off contractors Apcoa. Croydon has operated its own parking more or less from the dawn of time, and retained its own parking wardens even when the police took over the rest of London in the 1970s. When the law changed in 1994 and the police stepped back, the borough stayed in control of its own enforcement, even though the government pushed local councils to use contractors.
This all changed in 2007, when a shakeup led to a change of policy and a contract to run the parking. Apcoa, Europe’s biggest parking company, was the successful bidder, but it quickly found that the requirement was rather different from what they believed and expected. When it appeared that Croydon had released some highly sensitive and confidential information about the bid, Apcoa saw its chance and quickly headed for the door, leaving Croydon with a looming crisis and potentially no parking enforcement. The skirmishes and recriminations have started, and I suspect that this one will make a few lawyers richer before it is settled. Watch this space.
Prizes and the Poor Relations
I have managed to get myself on two judging panels this spring. The first is for the British Parking Association awards, which culminates in a mini Oscar ceremony-like bash in London (drink-speeches-more drink, fall over but be happy). The second is the Intertraffic Innovation awards in Amsterdam.
The BPA awards are fun. The judging panels get written submissions, and we then short-list the most likely candidates and do some further investigations and site visits to select the winners in about 10 categories.
Part of this process had me visit two car parks on successive days. The first was a 1,000-space car park built for a public hospital. It operates as a nested car park with all users entering and leaving via a common access, but with the upper decks reserved for staff that passed through a further gate.
Two things became clear very quickly. First, the designer hadn’t been able to solve the nested car park problem. In the peak, the numbers of staff arriving were too many for the single barrier to handle, and so the hospital opens the barrier and uses security to turn away any members of the public who stray into the wrong area. Second, there does not seem to have been enough quality control on the project. The car park opened in May “07 and already the top deck is cracked and leaking. Parts of the steel structure are rusting, and parts of the galvanized cladding are pockmarked with rust.
The second car park, by contrast, had been built by a commercial developer to a standard, not a price. It’s in an oceanside development on what used to be a transatlantic liner terminal. Although it’s brand new, the architecture reflects the art deco style of that period, and everything has the stamp of quality. I suspect that five years from now, this car park will still look like new, whereas, sadly, the hospital will be just another tired and tatty parking structure.
The Intertraffic Innovation awards are more challenging, to me at least. Whenever I see new technology, I ask myself a very simple question: “Is this a solution looking for a problem?” If the answer is yes, then I lose interest very quickly. Certainly a good few of the entries failed this test; someone had a bright idea and then looked for a use for it.
Parking is an enabling activity; we do it so we can do something else, go shopping, for a meal, to the theater and so on. Therefore, I can see great merit in developing equipment and systems that can be integrated into other payment systems so we can pay for the parking with the pizza or in the supermarket. I cannot see any logic in developing the inverse, where other bills can be paid through the car park, but that is what is now on offer.
And Finally …
I was rather critical of the Scottish government in my last column, but it seems that the people of Edinburgh may have a rather better grasp of common sense than those they have set above them. In 2006, the city issued just over 225,000 parking citations. It has expanded the coverage of its parking systems and planned for a 7% rise in ticket income in 2007. Quite unfairly, drivers responded by not breaking the law as often and, rather than growing, fines income dropped by 2%. The city did have the good grace to acknowledge that the reduction in offenses was a good news story. (I bet they put the prices up to cover the “loss,” though.)

Peter Guest is PT’s international correspondent. He can be reached at

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