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Car parking machines rated to find the most confusing payment method in Kent

By Rebecca Tuffin

When Canterbury council introduced state-of-the art parking machines across the city, they were hoping motorists would welcome them with open arms.

After all, it meant the end of pay and display machines where you had to guess up front how long you wanted to park your car for - and then make sure you got back to your vehicle before outstaying your welcome.

But the reaction, initially at least, was confusion for some drivers as they struggled to cope with the new automatic number plate recognition system (ANPR).

A line of freezing cold people grew longer and longer as they struggled to work out the payment machines in St Radigund's car park on one evening as theatre-goers collected their cars after a show at the Marlowe Theatre, with some waiting for 30 minutes to pay.

So is the ever-increasing range of hi-tech payment methods in Kent car parks is making things easier or adding to confusion. KentOnline investigated.

Car parks across the county use a variety of different payment machines
Car parks across the county use a variety of different payment machines

Scroll down to vote in our poll: Which method do you find most confusing?

Chatham

Pentagon Shopping Centre

Simplicity: 3

Ease of use: 4

Speed: 3

Payment methods: cash, card, contactless, ParkJockey website

Price: £1 for two hours

Total score: 10

The first stop on my little road trip was a 433-space car park under Chatham's Pentagon Shopping Centre, operated by an ANPR system.

When I arrived, I was confused about where the machines were actually located.

It was like a treasure trail, each bold black and pink sign revealing a bit more information.

Wendy from Wainscott preferred when there was a man in a booth taking payments

The first told me to pay before I drove out and the next said I could do so online. But I had to wander for quite a while before I found a sign which told me cash payments were available on the ground floor.

I think it would be a lot easier to put everything on one sign and have plenty of these around.

Each sign revealed a little more information
Each sign revealed a little more information

However, I have to say, once I found a machine, it was really simple to use.

I opted for the contactless method, which is always very quick, but I was a little delayed by my search for a machine.

I spoke to regular users of the car park who said they preferred when there was an actual person sat in a booth, but agreed the system was okay now they were used to it.

This is a private car park controlled by a company called ParkJockey but those in Chatham run by Medway Council are almost all pay and display, where either cash or the RingGo app can be used. If you use the app, you have the option to top up your parking time rather than race back to your car as the clock ticks.

Gravesend

Market Square

Simplicity: 3

Ease of use: 2

Speed: 1

Payment methods: change, Parkmobile app, call-up service

Price: £1.30 for up to an hour, Monday to Friday

Total score: 6

A Gravesham Council owned car park, Market Square offers the Parkmobile app or a call-up service alongside the standard pay and display option.

Having never tried it before, I decided to test out the call-up service.

I dialled the number and was asked to have my number plate registration and card details ready.

Elle Harris finds the call-up service easy to use
Elle Harris finds the call-up service easy to use

But after entering my card details, the automated voice thanked me and the call was ended.

I'm still unsure whether or not it went through as I was not prompted to enter my registration number, which is obviously very confusing.

Due to this confusion, I would not use the call-up service again.

In fairness, I was told by several locals who use the telephone service that they find it easy and simple to use.

Market Square car park in Gravesend has 123 spaces
Market Square car park in Gravesend has 123 spaces

Perhaps after getting it right once I would find it easy, but my first experience wasn't great.

However, Elle Harris uses car parks in Gravesend quite often and finds the call-up method pretty straightforward.

She said: "All of my details are on there now and I just call up to end the session."

A Gravesham Council spokesman said: "People who park in Gravesham car parks have the option to pay at the machine or by mobile app, giving them a variety of ways to pay.

"We are moving to RingGo from May 20 which is managed by the same company that manages Parkmobile."

Maidstone

Fremlin Walk shopping centre

Simplicity: 5

Ease of use: 4

Speed: 4

Payment methods: cash, car, contactless

Price: £2.20 for one hour, Sunday-Friday or £3.40 for up to two hours, Saturday

Total score: 13

Next, I decided to visit one of Maidstone's largest car parks- the popular 760-space Fremlin Walk shopping centre, controlled by Saba Parking.

As I drove up to the entry barrier, a small yellow disc popped out of the machine instead of the traditional paper ticket.

About the size of a £2 coin, the plastic tokens are reusable and therefore more eco-friendly than paper.

Fremlin Walk car park is the second largest in Maidstone
Fremlin Walk car park is the second largest in Maidstone

However, I did manage to lose it for a while after I dropped it and it ended up in my shoe.

A pay-on-return car park, the on-screen instructions are straightforward and easy to follow, and either cash or card can be used in some machines, while some are cash-only.

After I paid, the disc was dispensed once again for me to use at the exit barrier.

Despite the machine's simplicity, I think I prefer paying upon arrival. With a lost token setting you back £15, I'd rather not worry about losing the disc while pulling cash and other items out of my pocket during a shopping trip.

The town's largest car park with 1050 spaces, The Mall uses an almost identical token method.

Lost tokens are a little cheaper here - £6 plus the cost of your stay.

There are also 20 car parks and 12 on-street parking areas in the town controlled by Maidstone Borough Council.

Most of these accept both cash and or RingGo.

View our interactive map by clicking on the link below

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Ashford

Ashford Park Mall

Simplicity: 5

Ease of use: 5

Speed: 4

Payment methods: cash, card, contactless

Price: £1.40 for up to an hour

Total score: 14

This was the most straightforward parking system up to this point in my trip.

A ticket was dispensed as I entered the 304-space National Car Parks (NCP) car park, and clear signage pointed me in the direction of payment machines.

Cash, card and contactless were accepted payment methods, with no app or website.

Andrew Swarbrick from Aldington prefers to find a free car park and walk into town

You can also pre-book a ticket online to guarantee a space. I think this is a good idea, especially for the weekend - we all know how annoying it is to spend ages desperately searching for a space on a busy Saturday morning.

Car parks owned by Ashford Borough Council are all pay and display, accepting cash or payment through the Parkmobile app, with some allowing card.

A council spokesman, Dean Spurrell, said: "One of the key benefits of the app is the start/stop function when paying for parking.

"Offering several different ways to pay is intended to help customers. It gives them choices and eliminates the necessity to always have to think ahead and carry sufficient change."

However, Andrew Swarbrick from Aldington finds the machines generally easy to use but is confused that they are not all the same.

Dover

Albany Place

Simplicity: 3

Ease of use: 3

Speed: 3

Payment methods: cash, RingGo app, call-up service

Price: 60p per hour

Total score: 9

Used in more than 14,000 car parks across the UK, parking app RingGo is a favoured payment method over cash and card for thousands of people.

I tried it out for the first time in Albany Place, a 94-bay car park less than 10 minutes from Dover High Street.

I had to register with my email address, mobile number and a password before using the app.

RingGo is used by thousands across the country
RingGo is used by thousands across the country

A location code displayed above the parking meter makes it really easy to find the car park you are in.

I got a text with all my booking details on and another reminding me when I had 10 minutes until it ran out, which was useful.

However, one problem I encountered was I couldn't work out how to add more time to my booking.

All other car parks in the town owned by Dover District Council are pay and display, accepting cash and nearly all of them can also be paid for using RingGo, giving customers an option.

Folkestone

Bouverie Place

Simplicity: 4

Ease of use: 4

Speed: 3

Payment methods: cash, paybyphone app or website, call-up service

Price: £1.70 for up to an hour

Total score: 11

An app called paybyphone can be used at this 570-space multi-storey NCP car park in Folkestone town centre.

It was very quick to use with a clear layout.

You can log in using Facebook, which I liked as it means you don't have to take time entering your personal details.

Paybyphone records the date, location and cost of the parking ticket on the app, which is stored for later viewing.

Rozzy Turner from Folkestone thinks RingGo is the way forward

It also has a time countdown so you can clearly see how long you have left on your ticket. I think this is incredibly handy - the number of times I have forgotten the exact time I paid for the a ticket and raced back to the car, only to find I still had 15 minutes left. This feature gets rid of this problem.

However, I did accidentally pay for one day instead of one hour somehow which was a bit annoying and would not have happened if I was paying with cash. (You're not putting that on expenses - ed)

Folkestone & Hythe District Council have opted for RingGo instead, alongside pay and display cash machines in their town car parks, which many local residents find very convenient, including Rozzy Turner.

She said: "It's really easy and it's done in seconds."

Canterbury

Longport car park

Simplicity: 4

Ease of use: 4

Speed: 4

Payment methods: cash, card, contactless, council website

Price: £1.70 per hour

Total score: 12

A total of 16 car parks in the Canterbury City Council district are now using ANPR systems, Longport and St Radigund's being two of them.

This means the area now has more council-run public car parks with ANPR than any other local authority in the country.

Mark Cotman and Emma Vogel from Best Western Abbots Barton Hotel in Canterbury

But the high-tech machines have been causing some initial confusion, with those at St Radigund's reportedly proving to be a little temperamental at recognising number plates.

One frustrated customer is Mark Cotman, who runs a hotel in the city and has encountered problems with the system in the past.

However, when I visited both, they worked very efficiently. You pay before you leave, entering your registration number before using either cash, card or the council website.

I paid using card and found the instructions clear and was out of the park within no time.

You can also register online so you don't even need to go to a machine after your shopping trip.

When the ANPR system was first initiated in the city, Peter Davies, the council’s head of digital transformation and policy, said: "Traffic wardens can now be better utilised elsewhere - addressing issues which people care about such as parking outside schools or parking on double yellows.”

And in response to complaints about the machines in St Radigund's not working properly, he said: "“We certainly wouldn't go back to pay and display just because on some occasions there is a short period of time where queues form at the end of a show at the Marlowe."

Margate

Morrisons College Square

Simplicity: 3

Ease of use: 3

Speed: 3

Payment methods: cash, card, contactless

Price: £1 for up to an hour

Total score: 9

This car park is run by euro car parks primarily for Morrisons customers.

No app can be used here but instead the classic cash pay and display with a card option.

In my opinion, this is the simplest system, as everyone going to a car park surely has either their cash or card on them.

Joe Lye likes the traditional pay and display machines but Katie Barber prefers to use a website

The only slight problem was the option to use contactless was not obvious on the screen.

I was slightly delayed as I thought maybe the contactless pad wasn't working, so switched machines, before spotting the small text in the corner of the screen saying to click for contactless instructions.

All car parks in the seaside town run by Thanet District Council are still pay and display, using cash or the RingGo app.

But some residents use other payment methods. Katie Barber mostly uses the station car park and pays using a website, which she finds really simple.

She said: "I find it pretty straightforward because you can just log on to the website and just pay for the day."

Sheerness

Trinity Place Car Park

Simplicity: 3

Ease of use: 3

Speed: 3

Payment methods: cash, RingGo, call-up service

Price: £1 for up to an hour

Total score: 9

My last stop was Trinity Place in Sheerness, a modest 57-space car park, which was relatively empty when I arrived.

Being a much smaller town than the likes of Maidstone or Canterbury, I was not expecting any high-tech ANPR systems.

I was correct with my prediction, greeted by yet another pay and display machine, accepting cash and, you guessed it, the RingGo app.

Swale Borough Council has also opted for RingGo
Swale Borough Council has also opted for RingGo

I used cash this time, which will always be my favourite method of payment - there is much less to go wrong than with an app or ANPR.

The only reason I didn't give Sheerness higher scores is because if I had used RingGo, it could have been more confusing and taken longer.

Almost all car parks in Sheerness are controlled by Swale Borough Council, which I expect makes things pretty simple for locals, who can use the same method whichever car park they choose.

Jo James, chief executive of Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, believes the problem with car park machines in the county is the lack of consistency.

She said: "It is confusing even before I set off - Do I need to take money? Can I pay on my card? How much is it?

"I don't have a problem with using any of the machines but I am not personally a great fan of apps and my favourite is paying on the way out.

Jo James dislikes the lack of consistency with car park machines in Kent
Jo James dislikes the lack of consistency with car park machines in Kent

"With pay and display, you pay for a set amount of time and that's all you have got. I have had to call meetings short to get back to my car in time."

After trying car parking machines in nine of the county's most popular towns, Ashford comes out on top.

The NCP car park was clearly signposted so I knew exactly how I needed to pay when I arrived, and the machines were simple and easy to use, accepting both cash and card.

Fremlin Walk in Maidstone is a close second. Although the discs are a bit small and could be lost, the actual system is very simple and its handy to pay before leaving so you don't have to rush back to the car.

For me, the most confusing was Market Sqaure in Gravesend, simply because I don't even know whether I managed to pay.

It is a long-winded process having to read out your card details and registration number as it is, but getting cut off mid way through is not ideal.

I wasn't mad on the RingGo app, which is used by many of Kent's district councils, but I suppose I could get used to it.

In terms of all the borough councils agreeing to use the same payment methods - it's unrealistic and wouldn't actually make things much less confusing, as many large car parks are run by private companies.

Overall, for me, I will be sticking to the traditional pay and display machines, which accept both cash or card.

Everyone knows how they work, old or young, and having two payment methods means you're nearly always covered.

But the question is, which car parking machine do you find most confusing?

Read more: All the latest Kent news

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