Magazine

Notes from Big Ben ...

Chip Cards' May Cause a Problem

By Peter Guest

Peter Guest is a consultant and parking connoisseur in the UK. Now a PT correspondent, he will be filling us in on all things parking in Europe. We had considered translating this from English into American, but that might spoil the fun. Any of you needing a translation, contact Peter direct. Editor.
Magic Numbers
Someone here worked out that the average car is parked for 23 hours a day. I always wonder where such figures come from. Anyway, the number has gained its own life and has been quoted as far away as Shanghai. Apart from its being an "interesting fact," I am struggling to find a use for this magic number. If anyone out there can suggest something (politely), please let me know.
Reality Hurts
The British no longer talk endlessly about the weather; today, it's parking or, specifically, city-controlled street parking. Street parking used to be controlled by the police, and there was a comfortable accommodation between the police and the motorist, where the police issued a few tickets and motorists parked pretty much where and when they liked. In downtown London, there were about 500,000 illegal parkers per day and the police ticketed about 2%.
About a decade ago, this cozy arrangement ended when councils started to take over from the police. The people who provided parking now enforced the ordinances they made. City parking would henceforth be enforced by the City Council, controlled by elected councilors who were sensitive to the needs of their electorate: i.e., the motorist.
It didn't quite work out as expected. Drivers found City Hall was taking things much more seriously than the police, not least because the money from the tickets now went direct to City Hall. Cities suddenly found they were getting billions in payments and fines. Current estimates are that municipal parking in the UK now earns nearly $4 billion a year.
The newspapers soon filled with stories about "unfair" ticketing, and parking wardens became figures of hate. Prime-time television regularly runs "sting" programs where undercover journalists expose malpractice.
This cacophony has now reached parliament, where the independent Transport Select Committee is holding an investigation into Decriminalized Parking Enforcement, as the system is known. The committee's report is due later this year, and it would be a brave and probably foolish transport minister who ignored it.
EPA Congress
In September 2005, delegates from all over Europe gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for the European Parking Association's biennial congress. Two of the topics may be of interest in the US.
Most garages in mainland Europe are underground. I have never really understood why, since in the UK as in the US, most garages are built aboveground, which is cheaper and easier. Underground garages have to be force-ventilated and as more alternative-fuel cars using Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) are introduced, concerns about gas leaks are growing. Some operators simply ban such cars, but as their use grows, such bans will not be sustainable. A speaker at the EPA from an insurance group gave a very good presentation on the risks and issues associated with gas-powered cars. However, he made the statement of the week when he said we should build car parks "without any holes in the floors or ceilings to stop escaped gas spreading." Where I come from, we call these ramps ...
Money-handling is always a problem, and as parking charges grow, the industry looks for "cashless" systems to get money out of the parking transaction. Street parking in central London is now more than $8 an hour, and so the credit card is becoming a cost-effective alternative to coins. Unfortunately, the European banks have just thrown a major spanner into the works with the chip card. To reduce theft and fraud, the banks have introduced a new type of card with a microchip. This carries more data and offers greater security than the traditional magnetic stripe. Users validate card use with a four-digit PIN rather than signing, and the banks claim this is virtually fraud proof (it's not). Unfortunately, the banks have decided that unattended transactions (which include most parking) must use the PIN, rather than simply dipping the card, even if the transaction is less than a dollar. The cost of the secure card reader and pin pad and the associated gubbins will increase the cost of a pay-and-display machine.
I understand that in America, the banks have not yet accepted the need for the chip, and people in the parking industry who are thinking of going down this route to cashless parking need to realize the implications if the banks do opt to follow their European colleagues.
And the Alternative Is ...
One EPA congress spectator described the presentation by the banks as "the best argument I have ever seen for mobile phone payment," and increasingly Europeans are looking at this option. There are now about 20 different systems on offer in Europe, but most have the drawback that users have to pre-register or subscribe to use the system.
The most innovative thinking here seems to be coming from Eastern Europe, where in Croatia, for example, they have developed a system that allows any phone to be used without pre-registration, the money being collected directly from the phone account, using the phone as an electronic purse. This system is already handling more than 50% of transactions in some cities.
Finally: Is This the Most
Expensive Car Park Ever?
Netherlands parking company Q-Park has spent "over 100 million euros" to buy a 2,000-space car park in Maastricht. At more than 50,000 euros a space, is this the most expensive car park in the world?

Peter Guest can be reached at peterguest@parking1.freeserve.co.uk.

Article Abstract from March, 2006




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