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Can An App Save London From Its Parking Nightmare?

A new app aims to lessen the horror of parking in one of the London's densest neighborhoods.

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Parking is a nightmare in Islington, a borough of London that's crammed with as many people per meter as Chennai, India—the seventh most densely populated city on Earth. Sixteen different permits dictate when and where you can park. Rules are written on signs so poorly designed that you have to jump out of the car to read them up close. And then there's Arsenal soccer team, whose stadium is situated in the borough. When there's a match on, all the rules change, and parking in Islington moves from "nightmare" to "hell on earth."

So when they set out to build an app that could "fix" parking, Ford and Ustwo figured Islington was the place to start. The auto maker and digital product agency teamed up to create GoPark, a new app that aims to cure the design problem of parking, to create a solution to Islington's woes first, and hopefully extend that solution to other cities around the world.

The stakes are big. "If we can come up with a solution to London's parking problem, it has knock-on effects when it comes to air pollution, congestion, and road safety," says Tim Smith, a London-based designer at Ustwo. "It means less people getting fines, and traffic wardens being used more efficiently, and less administration overhead. I hate the term, but there's no other way to say it: It's literally a win-win for everyone."

The problem in Islington is two-fold. First of all, there are only so many spaces. According to Ford, up to 30% of all traffic on London roads at any given time is just people circling for a spot. Then there's the complexity of the parking rules themselves, which have more than 200 permutations dictating whether you can or cannot park in any given spot. Most of the people ticketed in Islington aren't really parking scofflaws. They just don't understand the rules. They park somewhere, thinking they're fine, and get a ticket anyway—which, in turn, leads to trust issues.

First and foremost, GoPark aims to make it easy for Londoners to know if they are allowed to park in a given spot in Islington. Using your phone's GPS, the GoPark app shows an interface with your car's location and any parking spots nearby. The app already knows what permits you have, so if a parking spot near you is green, it means you can park there. If it's red, you can't. For drivers who prefer to plan their parking ahead of time, there's a calendar view; the app will also tell you how long you can park at any given spot. But ultimately, the UI is simple: a map view of where you are and the spots around you where you can park.

It took the design team time to land on that visual solution, though. In the first iterations of GoPark's interface, this map view was only visible on one or two screens. Yet in early testing, one thing Ustwo discovered was that drivers in Islington had developed significant trust issues about parking—and a simple map turned out to be the most compelling way to gain that trust.

"The biggest thing we learned was that Londoners don't trust anything involving parking enforcement," Smith says. "They don't trust the council, they don't trust the signs, they don't trust the parking enforcement officers, and they didn't trust our app." By putting a real-time map on every screen, GoPark constantly reassures users that it has a 100% accurate understanding of where their car is. Meanwhile, graphic signifiers on the screen soothe users, reiterating that the app knows what permit they have. Those two things were enough, Smith says, to mitigate a lot of the trust issues London parkers have.

Now available to beta testers on Android and iOS by invite only, Ford and Ustwo intend to add new features to GoPark over time, such as predictive parking, where the app tells drivers where they're most likely to find a free space based on historical data. They also intend on implementing a payment option inside the app, so that drivers can pay for a metered spot without feeding coins into a machine. In fact, this is why Ford is experimenting with the app in the first place: The project is overseen by Ford Smart Mobility, the division within Ford that explores revenue streams outside of just pushing more cars on the road.

The ultimate goal, though, is to break GoPark free of Islington—first to bring the app to the rest of London, and then to other cities. Because if GoPark can fix parking in Islington, the likes of New York, Tokyo, or San Francisco will be a piece of cake. But maybe not Chennai.

Background Photo: Flickr user Tom Bastin

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