Parking Tales from Big Ben: When Common Sense Prevails


Parking Tales from Big Ben: When Common Sense Prevails

During the recent pandemic there was a significant shift from cash to card payment. This was driven by a combination of remote payment for things bought online, and people’s reluctance to handle coins and banknotes that might have been touched by the “unclean.” Covid is no longer the killer that it was, but remains endemic and we are advised that, like influenza, we should get an annual shot to stay healthy. 


However, cards are still king, with something like 83 percent of all transactions being that way. Recently, however, something surprising has happened: cash sales have risen and quite dramatically. In 2021, cash was used for just 15 percent of transactions; now it is up to 19 percent. Pundits say this is because people are managing money more carefully and it’s easier to control spending the cash in your pocket than give way to the tempting flexibility of plastic. 


I suspect that card fees might also be a consideration. Pay by phone parking apps, which are actually pay by card using the phone, often charge a transaction fee on top of the parking charge; and retailers are increasingly balking at the transaction charges that the card companies levy on them to accept cards. I remember cards being sold to the parking industry as being a cheaper option than cash for parking operators. It seems that the reverse may now be true.


On this theme, one municipality may have already realized the error of their ways. Gosport Council decided to replace their pay and display parking meters with a parking app which required users to sign up and load their personal information. Further, parkers also had to pay a 10p surcharge to use the app. The council’s rationale for this was apparently to save money, both on day-to-day operation and necessary equipment upgrades, see below. 


There was no mention of customer service. The result from the community was rather underwhelming and, to cut a long story short, the council has done a U-turn and is reinstating pay and display meters that will take both cash and card. I don’t think that it was rocket science to work out that if they had asked people if they wanted to pay a surcharge to park and give their financial data to an anonymous third party, they could have saved themselves the bother.


Speaking of necessary equipment upgrades, one of the things driving municipalities away from parking meters is the upcoming shutdown of the 2G and 3G mobile phone system over here. Many parking meters use 3G to communicate and, rather than upgrade, councils are trying to scrap their meters and move to pay by phone. 


The problem is that this presupposes that customers have both a smart phone and a credit card, neither of which is in the gift of the municipality, and that the phone network can be accessed in the car park, which is by no means universally true. Although it seems that only about 8 percent of the population is now without a smart phone, this is heavily biased to the elderly, and these are the people that are most likely not to be comfortable sharing their data with the councils’ contractors. After all, the record of digital security in the UK public sector leaves a lot to be desired. 


Where councils have ignored customer preference, customers have tended to vote with their feet, and town centers which have benefitted from “improved” parking services this way often see quite a dramatic reduction in footfall and retail activity. In fact, the government has intervened to warn councils against adopting parking systems that exclude sectors of the community.


Our friends over at the Shoupistas will have a blue fit when they read what is about to happen in the fair city of Berkeley. That’s the original one in Gloucestershire, not the Johnny-come-lately copycat one in California. The good Burghers of Berkeley are going to, horror shock, double the size of a car park! And horror upon horror, it will be free to use! Now, to give this context, we are talking about a net increase of just 23 spaces, but I think there is an important point to be made. The decision is a local one taking account of local circumstance, local politics and local needs, and trying to simplify such decisions with “universal truths” just simply doesn’t work.


I have talked about footway parking before. It has been an offense to drive on the footway since 1835 (Fine £500). However, that act doesn’t make any explicit mention of parking, so successive governments and disinterested police chiefs have hidden behind the flimsy argument that, since the vehicle may have got there other than by being driven, they can’t do anything. Poppycock and balderdash! 


That’s like saying if someone’s found dead with a knife in their chest, if the actual stabbing wasn’t seen then …. The “it might have been carried there” argument was decisively dealt with in London in the ‘70s when magistrates convicted drivers under the 1835 Act prosecuted by London Boroughs frustrated at police inaction. A new local power was enacted in 1974 allowing simpler ticketing. For some reason successive governments have found it beyond the wit of man to roll that legislation out to the rest of the country until, finally, 50 years after the London got the powers, the devolved Scottish government has enacted similar legislation and went live with the power in Edinburgh in January 2024. At last!

Article contributed by:
Peter Guest, Parking Tales from Big Ben
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