STEVE COLQUHOUN July 26, 2012
Parking and paying by smartphone is coming to a street near you, experts say.
Finding and paying for an on-street car park could soon be as simple and easy as a few taps on your smartphone.
Forget trawling the streets in the diminishing hope of snaring a park, then turning out your pockets for loose change for the parking meter, and later getting stung with a fine when the meter expires before you can return to feed it.
Within the next few years you’ll be able to consult your smartphone to locate an available parking space nearby, send a credit card payment for the spot with a few taps on the screen, and later receive an alert tone ahead of your time limit expiry to remind you to either move your car or extend your stay with another electronic payment.
The City of Sydney and City of Melbourne are among many municipalities around Australia either conducting trials on smartphone-operated parking systems, or looking into the future for technology-infused solutions that will streamline the process.
Terry Lee-Williams, the City of Sydney's Executive Manager of Access and Transport, says a current trial of “first generation” technology in selected Sydney suburbs has run its course.
The mPark system called on users to make a phone call to register their location and payment details each time they park, then pick up a ticket from a nearby machine to display on the car. “It’s a bit clunky and it’s had limited take-up,” Lee-Williams says.
He is reviewing a number of cutting-edge “second generation” systems that will likely incorporate more sophisticated features to allow smartphone owners to locate a nearby vacant parking space using GPS, authorise a payment, and receive an alert before the meter expires.
No coins or tickets will be necessary, with parking inspectors able to scan the car’s licence plate number and immediately see how much time remains on the meter.
“It means that when your meter is about to run out you can receive an alert and add credit from wherever you are, if the signposted restrictions allow it,” Lee-Williams says. “Another benefit is that you can pay the least amount you think you will need, then top up remotely if you’re delayed in getting back to the car.”
The City of Melbourne kicked off a “pay-by-phone” trial last year in a small section of inner-suburban Carlton comprising 1253 parking spaces.
Spokeswoman Ruth Ward says it is the first major change to Melbourne’s parking arrangements in 30 years. “We recognise that at times it can be frustrating if you don’t have the correct coins on you for parking,” she says.
“This new technology means that people don’t have to run to the shop to get change for the meter or run the risk of parking without a ticket – instead they could phone a specific number and pay for parking with their credit card.”
Ward says users can track their parking expenses online and either use a mobile app or make a phone call to kick off a parking session.
The City of Melbourne trial concludes next month, and will be followed by an evaluation period before the next step can be taken.
Will this technological onslaught spell the demise of the coin-fed parking meter?
Not yet, Lee-Williams says. “There’s a philosophical question of whether you continue with the cash payment system, because right now not everyone has a smartphone. And anyway, at the moment it’s illegal not to provide a cash payment option,” he says.
“At this stage we’re thinking we’ll roll this out in the CBD to begin with, because we think that most people who can afford to park there will be the types to own smartphones. What’s the tipping point (from cash to computer payments)? We’re not sure of that just yet.”
He says the new parking system won’t be cheap for the City to install, but will be cost-effective over time. “In the past, technologies changed about every 10 years. These days it’s more like every 18 months. We plan to invest in a system we can update via software tweaks, rather than one we have to pull out and change over,” he says.
“Eventually we think we can do away with parking signs altogether, so you can have multiple time limits depending on the time of day without the big, confusing parking signs everywhere. Your phone tells you what the restriction is at the time you’re looking to park.
“We think that we might even be able to do away with marked parking bays, because it will all be done via GPS. That means that three or four small cars can park where two large ones would previously have done.”
Such smart systems will also allow municipalities to charge different rates depending on the time of day or night, with more efficient data to be collected on parking trends and habits to help with urban planning.
However, the new technology is unlikely to radically change enforcement methods, Lee-Williams says. You’ll no longer be able to wipe a chalk mark off your tyres, or overstay the parking spot’s mandated time limit by continuing to feed the meter.
But it won’t lead to Big Brother-style enforcement. “Parking officers still need to witness an infringement, so it’s not like we’ll be remotely booking every car that overstays,” he says.
“You’re probably unlikely to see parking officers homing in on an expiring meter, either, because even though they will know where they are, it’s inefficient for them to just bounce from expired meter to expired meter. They’ll probably still walk their same routes.”