The last days of the parking machine

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There’s such a lot to dislike about parking machines. They regularly break. They give incomprehensible instructions. Some of them still only take coins.

But does that mean we would be better off without them?

A lot of organisations seem to think so. From London to Somerset, parking machines are being removed in favour of app-based payment systems. A quarter of all London authorities have already made the transition. And although many drivers won’t give a second thought to their disappearance, not everyone is happy.

So, what’s behind the parking machine cull?

OK, it’s tempting to think that the wholesale destruction of UK parking machines has been masterminded by smartphone-addicted bureaucrats in central government. But in reality, parking machines are disappearing because of decisions by owners, such as local councils. And it’s for one overriding reason: parking machines are too expensive.

Many parking meters currently use 3G, but that’s going to be switched off by mobile phone providers, and upgrading them to 4G is far from cheap. What’s a cash-strapped council to do?

On top of that, machines break or get vandalised – in fact, back in 2007, it was a wave of vandalism against the machines which spurred Westminster council’s plans to remove them.

App advantages

To justify killing off parking machines, local governments often point out that app-based payments are much more convenient. For many drivers, that’s true – at least compared to coin-only machines. Over the last few years, many of us have lost the habit of carrying around pockets full of coins. In fact, in 2021, 23 million people in the UK used almost no cash at all. Being confronted with a coin-only machine can be maddening.

In addition, many apps provide a ten-minute warning that a parking period is about to expire. Depending on the parking restrictions, users may get the option of extending their stay without having to trudge back to the vehicle. That’s got to be a step forward!

The downsides to app-based parking

So, app-based parking is cheaper for councils, and means that you don’t have to buy something you don’t want from Tesco Express just to get a pocketful of coins. Plus, you get a handy reminder that your time slot is about to expire.

All that sounds great, but there are at least three big problems with ripping out parking meters.

  1. Some areas don’t have reliable phone signals. For example, one of us tried to pay by app for a parking place in rural Northumberland. To get any signal at all, you had to connect to the nearby chip van’s wifi. Even with this, the parking app still hadn’t downloaded after 15 minutes. In the end, it meant getting some change from the reluctant van owner. The point is that app-only parking asssumes that everywhere has great mobile coverage – which just isn’t the case.
  2. Some people find using apps difficult. The most obvious demographic here is older people. In the UK, there are currently 3.3 million people aged over 80. That means 3.3 million people who grew up with coin-operated parking meters, who were at least 42 years old when the first mobile phone call was made in 1985, and who were at least 64 years old when the first UK iPhone was launched in 2007. And although many older people have adapted to newer technology, plenty have not. This means that app-only parking effectively bars a chunk of the older population from making use of parking facilities.
  3. Not everyone even owns a smartphone. It’s easy to assume that everyone has a smartphone, but actually, the overall rate of ownership in the UK is currently 88%. This ranges from 96% in 16-24-year-olds to 78% in the over 55s. With a UK population of 67 million, that means around 8 million adults don’t use a smartphone. The reasons vary from cost to an active choice to reject digital addiction. As app-only parking spreads, it forces millions of people to adopt smartphones, whether they want to or not.

Can the parking machine survive?

The death of the parking machine will disenfranchise big chunks of the population and help cement smartphone domination of our lives. Will this give the relevant bodies pause for thought?


Even in 2007, when smartphones were relatively novel, Westminster council was citing ‘overwhelming support’ for app-based parking. And if you didn’t have a smartphone, or couldn’t use apps, that was just tough:

Westminster Council has stated that they have no intention of providing alternative systems for anyone that doesn’t have a mobile phone.

Fast-forward sixteen years, and here’s Bromley’s executive councillor for transport:

 “As a pensioner myself, I appreciate that some people have a problem with modern technology.However, we are talking about people who drive a ton and a half of steel, which requires more skill than downloading an app.”

This misses the point that driving requires a completely different set of skills to using digital technology. But leaving that aside, the overall tone of these messages seems to be that non-app users need to shape up and get with the programme.

A brief reprieve?

Recently, however, there’s been at least some recognition of the issues from people that have some influence. For example, Conservative MP Greg Smith,  a member of the Transport Select Committee, had this to say:

“Councils should not seek to rip off those who still want to use a pay and display machine. Whilst the vast majority of us now use parking apps, there are many who can’t or don’t want to.”

Motoring organisations such as the RAC have also voiced their concern.

Despite this, we can’t see any way parking machines will last too much longer. Once a technology starts to fall out of favour, maintenance starts getting scarcer and more expensive. At some point, it then becomes an unaffordable luxury. As the Daily Mail reports:

Anthony Eskinazi, chief executive of JustPark, has said he ‘can’t see’ any local authorities buying traditional meters ‘past 2025’.

And with procurement contracts generally lasting up to eight years or less – it means motorists may struggle to find any parking meters beyond 2032.

In a few years, it looks like parking machines will go the way of the Penny-farthing and other long-lost tech. Ah well, they were good (and bad) while they lasted.

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