Sometimes newer isn’t better. Or, the story of the questionable parking meter

So here’s the story. I love making websites accessible and inclusive. I love knowing that everyone can have a great experience when visiting a website I’ve designed and built. Over time, this focus on accessibility has gradually burrowed into my mindset outside of work too. A recent family shopping trip highlighted this.

The shopping centre car park has a new payment system.

It does not work well.

Entry to the car park used to be regulated by a ticket machine. You drive up, take the ticket and the barrier raises to let you through. After shopping, you would put your ticket into a meter and pay for the time used. Pretty common. Pretty simple.

Since our last visit, the system has changed. Now when you approach the barrier, the system checks your number plate (you might call it a licence plate if you don’t live in the UK). Then the barrier raises to let you in. Like the old system, parking is paid when you’re finished. But there’s no longer a ticket. Instead, to reach the payment screen we need to enter our number plate using a touchscreen.

My designer/developer brain jerked into action and said something along the lines of “huh?”. This system is not inclusive or accessible for everyone.

First, the benefits

I do see a few benefits for the system:

  • Firstly, reduced paper waste. No need to print card tickets on this system. A small win for the environment.
  • Lost ticket? Thing of the past. No ticket system means we don’t need to anxiously keep checking our pocket, wallet or handbag.
  • Cost savings. I’ve had so many encounters with staff helping out at troublesome ticket machines and barriers. Perhaps removing tickets from the system would allow staff to focus on their other work?

Perhaps there are more, but I can’t think of anything.

Of course, there are cons

On entering the car park there is a barely noticeable sign that the meter system has changed to number plate recognition. At the barrier, a small screen displays an easily-missed message about the change.

Perhaps so as not to throw customers used to paying before getting into their car, the meter still sits at the exit to the shopping centre. Now instead of using a ticket, the meter requires customers to recall their number plate.

“Wait, what???”

What if someone suffers from cognitive disability? What if a customer has impaired memory or general forgetfulness? What about neurodiversity? My wife has ADHD and can’t remember our entire number plate. She can’t be alone in that. What if the customer is driving a hire car? Have you ever remembered your hire car’s number plate?

The evidence soon mounted. I was sat in my car with my daughter, parked about 30 feet away. We watched one customer have to come back twice to double check they had the right number plate. Luckily they were parked just behind us so didn’t have far to travel. What if they had mobility problems? That would probably be infuriating and dispiriting.

On a second visit, I watched an older couple struggle to remember their number plate. It was decided that one should head to the car and shout the number plate to the other, who was standing at the meter. What ensued was sadly quite comical for onlookers, but clearly frustrating for the couple. The reader, who was about 40 feet away, shouted out the number plate. The listener couldn’t quite catch it:

Listener: “Was it a ‘G’, or a ‘T’?”

Reader: “E!”

Listener: “‘B’??”

Reader: “No! E!!”

Listener: “‘G’?? Or ‘T’??”

Reader: “E!!!!!”

In my daily work on the web these would be described as user experience pain points. They happen outside the web too! For some, this would make for an irritating end to a shopping trip. Through the whole process, I kept thinking about the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) that advise on website usability ( has a wonderfully simplified overview for understanding WCAG 2.1). Surely there must be someone performing accessibility audits on systems like the payment system at this car park? If this was a website it would surely be a WCAG fail?? I’ve visited other car parks with number-plate recognition before. In those the number plate is stored on the way in, then recognised automatically on the way-out. It calculates how much you owe at the exit barrier, and you pay right there at the barrier. Even if not perfect, surely that is better and more inclusive?