​Cashless parking was meant to make life easier for drivers but our phones are awash with competing apps

Our hatred of malfunctioning parking meters goes back decades, and a combination of smartphone technology and GPS should make life easier for motorists and wardens alike

When I was prompted by a roadside sign to download yet another cashless parking app, my patience finally snapped. I now had four of them on my phone – PayByPhone, RingGo, Parkmobile and ParkRight, all of which required me to undergo a laborious sign-up procedure, keying credit-card details and registration numbers into my phone while I sat on the bonnet, accruing parking charges.

The competitive marketplace for cashless parking has resulted in a fragmented and rather irritating experience for motorists who don't have a handy stash of pound coins; as well as the aforementioned apps, there are others such as Phoneandpay, MiPermit and Whoosh, all promising to liberate us from the tyranny of the parking meter but ignoring the fact that we don't care who we pay: we just want to park.

“Parking spaces are a commodity that people need as part of their everyday lives,” says Dan Hubert, founder of AppyParking, an app dedicated to making sense of Britain's mind-boggling parking situation. 

It's the chaotic result of decriminalised parking enforcement, which began in the 1990s. Enterprising local authorities were eager to take on responsibility for policing our errant parking in return for charges and fines; as a result, they now rake in an estimated £667m a year in profits (usually described by councils as “operational surplus”) with parking the second- or third-highest revenue generator in many cities. 

The theoretical convenience of cashless, phone-based parking emerged just over 10 years ago with three major players pitching to local government: RingGo, Parkmobile and Verrus, the Canadian company behind PayByPhone. In 2012, Parkmobile (the third biggest) bought RingGo (the market leader), but the on-street branding has stayed the same and the two apps aren't interoperable (although they do share your registration data to make signing up easier). Eighty-five per cent of cashless parking locations in the UK are now covered by two apps, PayByPhone and RingGo, with the second tier mopping up the rest.

The manner in which the UK map has been carved up, and the likelihood of you already owning the app you need to park your car, is entirely down to the strange world of competitive tendering in local government. PayByPhone is strong in North London, but in, say, Hampshire, RingGo has all bar one or two of the local councils. There are few patterns: 112 local authorities are covered by RingGo, 42 by PayByPhone, 26 by Parkmobile, 28 by Phoneandpay, 18 by MiPermit and so on.

“There isn't much logic to the way it has developed,” says Harry Clarke, the founder of Cobalt Telephone Technologies, operator of Ringgo. “For example, Oxford came on board very early, but Cambridge has only just done so. Norwich and Ipswich still don't have cashless parking.” Wales is also entirely bereft – mainly down to the costs involved in producing a dual-language app, set against the tiny margins of parking payment processing.

Small margins aren't such a problem in the Central London borough of Westminster, which, according to Clarke, makes over three times more “surplus” out of parking than the next two boroughs combined (Camden and Kensington & Chelsea). Such is the value of Westminster parking stock that the local authority developed its own parking brand, ParkRight, which requires visiting motorists to use yet another app. “It's actually a sideways channel to the RingGo system,” admits Clarke. “It's administered by us. If you bang the ParkRight location code into the RingGo app, it'll work, because we host it.”

In theory, cashless parking is a great idea. Our hatred of malfunctioning parking meters goes back decades, and a combination of smartphone technology and GPS should make life easier for motorists and wardens alike. “Mistakes can be sorted out straight away,” he says. “Our systems are logging every step you make, so we can see if you've made a genuine mistake. That was never true of tickets. We give people the benefit of the doubt, and that's how it should be.”

But we're still left with a collection of apps that all perform the same simple task – a situation Dan Hubert has been working to resolve. AppyParking, originally a parking information hub (where, when, how much) now accepts payments on behalf of different parking providers including RingGo and PayByPhone – but Hubert has set his sights on a system that would bypass smartphone fiddling and save motorists money, too. “We've developed a one-click parking solution where you turn up, confirm your location and walk away. When you drive off, the car tells the system and ends the transaction.

Trialled in Westminster, it's the first step in what Hubert calls “last-metre navigation”. “We're not really a parking app; we're a data app,” he says. “There's so much pain on the roads related to parking – 20 to 30 per cent of traffic in a city is just looking for a space – but if you know every metre of paint and what it means, you can start to change the whole dynamic of that city. With the right partnerships in place, cars will be able to tell us where the parking is.” Guidance into empty spaces, automatic payments, no prospect of parking fines – it's like a beautiful dream. Let's just hope that the competitive marketplace doesn't ruin it.