An important parking infrastructure decision is about to be made – and I feel like us nerds can help make it right
A side-quest for my readers awaits
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The problem with trying to rationally design a labelling system is that the real world is much messier.
Take postcodes, to pick one completely random example.
They were first introduced to Britain in 1959, and slowly rolled out over the two decades that followed. But because postal districts were first created in the 19th century, some of the geographic allocations didn’t, and still don’t fit a coherent pattern or structure. It’s a problem that was exacerbated even further when Greater London was created in 1965, and when local government was reformed nationally in 1972, with no corresponding change in postcodes.
That’s why, for example, Kingston – an area inside Greater London has postcodes that begin “KT” instead of using London’s compass-point designations, and apparently there are parts of Essex that use a London “E” postcode.
Similarly, historically phone area codes would give you a hint at the geographic location you are calling, as the numbers you dialled on the phone instructed actual physical switches where to route calls. But today they are basically just arbitrary numbers in a database, and with digital routing you could be calling anywhere in the world.
And then there is the names of train stations, which often become names for the broader area where they are situated. That’s why we talk about the scary drug dealers that used to congregate outside my old house in Elephant and Castle and not Newington.
Anyway, I mention this because labels are important, and can have a long, historic resonance. And because soon Britain is going to have to undertake another historic labelling effort, where there’s an interesting debate happening about how to do it right.
You might remember that back in October I wrote about the forthcoming “National Parking Platform” which is currently being developed by the Department for Transport (DfT).
In a nutshell it is a clever idea that will hopefully stop parking apps from being a total nightmare, by severing the link between payment apps and specific car parks.
So the idea is that you’ll be able to roll up to any car park that’s on the platform, and you’ll be able to use the parking app of your choice to pay. So if you already use RingGo, you’ll be able to use that. If you’d prefer to use JustPark, you can use that instead. And so on.
There’s lots of behind-the-scenes benefits too, to do with data being shared and so on. You can read my original post for all of that.
In any case, to make the whole new system work the government needs to make a big decision: It needs to give every car park in the country a unique identification number – just like how every building has a postcode, or every phone has a phone number.
And here’s the intriguing bit. Recently I was talking to someone in the parking industry1 who is close to the decision makers, and they tell me that the final choice on exactly how the new numbering system will work is due to be made soon. However, I also understand that there isn’t yet a settled view inside DfT or across the industry about how exactly numbers should be allocated. Or even how many digits there should be.
And this is where you come in.
It’s a decision that could, like postcodes and the names of train stations, create a public dataset that will persist for many decades to come. The numbers will become part of how we describe our built environment. Sure, it might not seem quite as historically important as postcodes2 - but I bet that the people who wrote the Highway Act of 1835 didn’t anticipate that making horse-drawn carriages pass on the left would have long-running consequences either. And in any case, there’s surely a big opportunity to do something fun here.
So my parking friend made the perceptive and ego-massaging point that I have people in the corridors of transport bureaucrat power who read my Substack. I’ve got a small, but smart and well-connected audience3. So perhaps together we can figure out the best, or most fun, way to do it? And then perhaps the people actually making the decision will actually read our suggestions and maybe actually take the best one on? Because let’s face it – no one else is going to write about this.
The parking numbering challenge
So here’s the challenge: Can you come up with the best way to structure and allocate car park numbers?
I’m told that there will be some key design constraints the final system will need to follow:
It will need to be numbers only, so that less-tech savvy people can type the numbers on old-fashioned phone keypad when calling to pay for parking.
The largest local authorities have more than 1,000 car parks, but fewer than 10,0004, so will need to work with those sorts of numbers in each council area.
Parking codes will be dished out to local authorities in blocks or groups.
And for reference, the parking industry is currently kicking around a bunch of ideas that include:
The numbers could code-in some sort of geographic reference (like phone numbers with area codes, or how postcodes contain postal distract letters at the start).
The system will eventually handle different types of parking (on-street and off-street), and different types of payments (eg, pay before, pay on exit, EV-charging), so some existing proposals include a way of identifying this from the numbers used.
There’s also also lots of complexity in how parking is managed in different places, so there’s some debate over whether codes should reflect geography or owners (eg, a council or a company like NCP).
My parking pal is also keen to figure out how such a system can include some fun easter-eggs, like having Orwell Street Car Park in Ipswich contain the number 101, Hastings Street containing 1066, or Bond Street including 0075, and so on.
So what’s the best way to do it? How many digits should it have? Can you think of some really clever way to encode geography into the numbers?6 Could the numbers include anything else, like a ‘type’ marker for, eg, car parks at train stations? Is there a rational way to allocate numbers for thousands of car parks that have arisen organically? How would you do it?
I feel like this is something the nerds who read Odds and Ends of History can figure out. So let me know your best ideas in the comments, and I’ll make sure that my parking industry friend passes on the ideas to the people actually making the decision.
And who knows, together we might actually get to help define how something important works for decades to come!
Yes I have the coolest friends.
Though who really knows. Maybe in 40 years time, municipal car park codes will become landing codes for drone deliveries?
Feel free to pat yourselves on the back for this.
By “car parks” I mean everything from sites with hundreds of spaces, to streets with three on-street parking spaces, hence how the numbers get so large. Though by this number system, both would only have one number each, as individual spaces will be numbered separate to this system, if at all.
Not that Bond Street should have any parking for anyone other than blue-badge holders and delivery drivers.
I’m not smart enough to figure out the maths but I’m sure there must be some way to abstract latitude/longitude into, say, three digit numbers so you could have a system that is XXX-YYY with the lat/lon making up the numbers?