The parking system at some of the downtown lots has been a pretty hot topic of discussion lately. There have been a lot of complaints from consumers, who have been very frustrated with the system, saying they are confusing and inconvenient, among other things. Some have simply boycotted shopping in the downtown area because of the meters.
I personally have absolutely no problem paying to park downtown, because I think if it wasn't for those meters, there probably wouldn't be any open spaces downtown, especially with its proximity to campus. As it is now, even with the meters, the lot at the Old Town shopping center is often at or near capacity. Then again, I wonder if simply putting a time limit on parking in certain areas, without the use of meters or pay stations, would be as effective.
On Wednesday, when I had a meeting scheduled to discuss the parking issue with a business owner, I decided to drive over so I could experience the parking system myself. I usually walk, because my office is also downtown (with free parking!), but I wanted to see what all of the complaining was about. Now I know, and my own parking experience was not a pleasant one.
First I parked my car in one of the many open spaces in the Lehigh lot, and as the sign suggested, I remembered my space number. Then I walked over to the pay station, and that was when I encountered a series of problems that really gave me a good dose of the frustration that has already been voiced.
Problem 1: Instructions
I tried to read the instructions. I consider myself to be pretty good at following instructions, but that requires the instructions to be readable! Because it was raining, and the machine was covered with raindrops, the instructions at the top of the machine were difficult to read. Plus some of the text is dark, on a dark background, so that only compounded the issue. The instructions set in the lighter area of the machine (under step 1) was very legible, but didn't explain the "insert payment" part, which is probably the most confusing.
Problem 2: Interface Design
I think whoever designed the user interface for the parking stations needs to consider re-taking some user experience design classes. Step number 1 (enter space number) is on the far right of the machine. Then step 2 (insert payment) is all over the machine! Coins are to the left of step 1, credit cards all the way at the bottom right of the machine (below step 1, and not labeled as "step 2"), and cash is on the bottom left of the machine (also not labeled as "step 2"). Step 3 (press green button for ticket) is in the bottom left corner, and because I had trouble reading the instructions at the top of the machine in the rain, I'm not exactly sure what all of the arrow buttons do. Step 4 (take ticket) is in the top left corner.
Was the machine designer trying for a clockwise flow of steps, and then moved the coin portion of step 2 up to the top? Or were they simply failing at a linear flow of the steps? Whatever the intention might have been, the steps are all over the place, and when the end user (consumer) has to look to find a step, it's going to take longer to complete the transaction.
Problem 3: Payment
The next issue I ran into was payment. I had coins, bills, and credit cards with me, to cover all of my bases. First I tried a dollar bill. It was crisp, clean, and new, but because of the rain, it was a little bit damp, and there is nothing over the machine to prevent that from happening. My dollar bill was rejected a grand total of six times before I gave up with that method. After each rejection, I had to re-key the space number, and try paying again. There was no explanation on the screen as to why my money was rejected. Nothing about it being wet, or the machine being full, or anything else.
Next I tried to pay with a credit card, and even though I only planned to be in my destination for 15-30 minutes, I was charged for an hour, because that's the minimum for credit cards. That's not a huge deal for me, because I usually do have coins, and can pay for the exact time I need, but I can see how that could be a sore point for others.
I didn't get to try coin payment, to see if that worked, but my guess is that would be the easiest method of payment.
Problem 4: Interaction Time
All together it took just under three minutes for me to pay for my parking space (yes, I timed it), mostly because of the payment step. Now keep in mind it was raining, so those three minutes felt more like 10 minutes, standing in the drizzle. Also keep in mind that the parking lot was not crowded, and I wasn't there during lunch or dinner rush, so there wasn't a line at the meters. I don't even want to think about waiting in a line of four to five people, with each person taking several minutes to pay, especially in the rain. Of course I could run down to the pay station at the other end of the lot, but doesn't that sort of defeat the whole "convenience" thing?
Next Time: A Business Owners Perspective
After finally paying the meter, I made my way into Krazi Kebob, where I spoke with the owner. He shared his thoughts on the parking meter issue, and how it's affecting his business. I will share what he told me in my next post.