Thought Leadership

Parking ticket machines – who designed them?

By Colin Walls

Like most people, I have a car. I do not mind driving and try to do so in a legal, responsible and courteous manner. I do not particularly enjoy driving, but it gets me from A to B. Some people do get pleasure from driving and I have no problem with that, so long as they do not treat it as a competitive sport. The bit of driving and car ownership that I definitely dislike is parking the darned thing …

Although parking by the road is common, of course, all too often there is a need to find a parking lot [sorry, car park in English]. I often wonder who designs them and whether they actually research the logistics and practicality of their use. I particularly dislike the multi-story structures, where just driving around them always seems way too complex, difficult and counter-intuitive. But it is the question of payment that often vexes me.

Broadly, parking payment is effected in two ways: pay on exit or pre-payment. In the UK, at least, pre-payment [“pay and display”] is extremely common. This payment scheme is popular with city authorities because, put simply, they can make more money. When I park, I rarely know exactly how long I am going to be there, so I am likely to buy more time that I actually need, so more profit is made. If I do not buy enough, I might get a ticket and lots more profit is made. I get to lose either way.

My next challenge is knowing how I am required to pay. Typically there is a big sign by the ticket machine, but this is almost always printed quite small and/or the rules are very complex. Ideally, I would drive up to the sign, read off the amount I would need to pay, park the car and come back with the right money to buy the ticket. Or even hop out of the car quickly and get the ticket before parking – but there is never any “pausing space” by the machine. So, I normally park, walk to the machine, check the amount, go back to the car to get the right money, then return to the machine to get the ticket. Tedious.

Another gripe is that parking tickets are commonly non-transferrable. This means that, if I buy 3 hours parking, but only stay for 2 hours, I cannot pass it to you to use it for an hour. What not? Because it is another profit increasing trick. Often the non-transferrability is not really checked and enforced, but sometimes the owners of the parking lots go to great lengths to make sure that users obey the rules. This is when the parking ticket machine design becomes an issue.

A common practice is to endorse the parking ticket with the registration plate of the car. In the UK, plates normally take the form XXnnXXX, so many machines have a numeric keypad to enter the “nn”. That is OK, but some ticket machine designers feel the need to go further and make the machines so much more complex in the process.

Last week I used a machine which specified that I needed to enter the “last 3 numbers of the plate”. But they are letters, not numbers. So, for just this purpose the machine had been equipped with a full QWERTY keyboard. Over-engineered or what? Then I was instructed to enter the duration that I wanted to park. I tried entering “4”, as I wanted 4 hours, but that was no good. I then noticed the “0.5” on the screen and guessed that this meant 30 minutes. Then I wondered what the “+” and “-“ keys did … The whole process of getting a ticket took ages. But this is not the worst that I have encountered.

A while back, I wanted to park at a local university for the evening. Plenty of spaces and it only cost about $1.50 – all good. When I got to the ticket machine, another user was getting his ticket, which seemed to take for ever. When my turn came, I realized why. The machine wanted me to enter the complete registration number. All I had available was a numeric keypad, which was to be used in the style of text message entry on old-style cell phones. Worse still, the keys were sticky/bouncy, so errors were easy to make. The absolute worst was the slightest pause was rewarded with a complete reset and the need to start over. When I got my ticket, I held it aloft and got a round of applause from the waiting line.

The designers of the above mentioned parking machines were idiots, but there are some good designs around. One city, that I visit occasionally, has a system whereby you can pay using a cell phone – not even a smart phone. You just text a code and a duration to their number [having set up an account before, of course]. It texts back an acknowledgement and you are all set. 15 minutes before expiry, another text is sent to warn you. By replying to this text, you can top up your parking time. This is excellent, as the chances of over-paying or over-running are much reduced.

The best parking charge system that I have found was at a hospital. There were no barriers and no tickets – just drive in, park and go about your business. On the way back to the car, you stop by the “ticket machine” and key in all or part of your car registration plate. It pops up with photos of cars that have entered the facility recently with plates that appear to match. I only ever saw one photo, which was my car. It tells you the charge, you pay and you are done. I guess that, if you do not pay, a fine arrives in the mail.

There is one parking charge strategy that makes me smile. A place where they have combined technology with a knowledge of human nature to get a good result. It is a pay-on-exit facility. You grab a ticket on entry, the barrier opens to let you in and you park. On the way back to the car later, you endorse the ticket at a machine by paying the fee. You drive to the exit and the endorsed ticket enables the barrier to open. This is simple enough, but has the challenge that there will always be someone with a problem blocking the exit and this needs human intervention, so staff need to be on hand. Clearly the owners wanted to save money on staff late in the evening [when I have tended to be there]. I figured this out because I noticed that, having paid to endorse my ticket, when I drove up to the barrier, it just opened; the ticket was redundant. They figured that most people would pay, so they would lose no money. But the barrier being on “automatic open” would eliminate delays. The question is, now that I have figured this out, will I pay next time?

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at