They started springing up on the streets of New York City last fall, like a municipal version of the infamous monolith from 2001. Without warning, there they were, nearly everywhere, five feet tall, imposing, mysterious and yet oddly inviting, something you might rub to see if it responded. Anyone who’d ever parked a car in this town, only to be made impotent without a pocketful of quarters, had genuine cause to celebrate. Finally! After 60 years, the old-fashioned parking meter, that stolid, coin-operated, tooth-and-gear, steel-and-concrete symbol of antiquity, had mutated boldly into the 21st century. If you had a Jetsons-inspired jones for the arrival of real urban modernity, well, this was bigger than the death of the subway token. An ugly old war-horse had been decommissioned. Where once stood a device essentially unchanged since the Truman Administration, the Big Apple now had solar-powered, Wi-Fi thrumming, multi-lingual, credit-card friendly, receipt-printing, digitally native parking meters. To a city capable of remaking abandoned elevated train tracks into radiant public parks, it was exciting to see creativity imposed on this most banal of tax-collecting devices.
And they called it the MuniMeter.
As a tech fetishist and frequent hunter for New York parking spots, I have lived and interacted with these new meters for several months now, stuffing them with myriad coins and credit and debit cards in the process. I would like to report that they are the civic equivalent of The Nest, Tony Fadell’s genius reboot of the hideous old-school thermometer, or that they echo the frictionless pleasure of Square, Jack Dorsey’s deceptively simple credit card reader, but that’s simply not the case. Sadly, my initial enthusiasm has turned to frustration. I now fear these new parking meters may be one of the biggest missed creative opportunities in recent municipal history. “I think they’re beautiful,” NYC transportation secretary Janette Sadik-Khan recently told the New York Times. Sure, they’re prettier than their predecessors. But the UX is anything but elegant.
In all fairness, the Muni interface does indeed appear attractive at first blush. There are a few colorful plastic buttons, which are always inviting. And there’s an LCD screen, which is okay, if a bit 1982. And there’s a mini jack and a language button, because non-English-speaking parkers always carry around a set of headphones to receive verbal payment instructions from inscrutable parking meters. Actually, that’s the problem: a seemingly simple process, which surely could’ve been conveyed info-graphically, like an IKEA manual, has been made needlessly complicated.
Here’s how it works: You’re supposed to pay for your time, print out a receipt, and put the receipt face-up on your dashboard. The problem is you can only purchase, at maximum, an hour’s worth of parking. The machine complicates matters by adding an extra “Add Time” button for the likely small percentage of parkers who would like to buy time in smaller, 15-minute increments, rather than choose the “Max Time” button, which creates all sorts of button-pushing permutations. By graciously allowing people to pay less than a dollar, but not less than a quarter, we got two extra confusing buttons. I suppose giving parkers the option to pay a quarter instead of a dollar is all democratic and such, but lets face it, New Yorkers like to hoard a spot once they find one. Muni should have just had one big button, like the original iPod.
The thing that really bothers me about the Muni is that it’s also totally unbranded. The result, no doubt, of some secretive bidding process won by a tech firm I would wager has no experience making consumer electronics. I couldn’t find anything at all about the thing online. Who made it? Who got to decide who would make it? It reminds me of those cheesoid video players American Airlines used to carry (now replaced by Samsung Galaxies). Imagine what this thing would have looked like if we’d opened up the UI design to the Alley? Didn’t anyone in town think to ask the local digerati for a point of view? Shouldn’t the device connect to an app that located empty spots? And what do the devices actually cost the city? I tweeted @JSadikKhan’s protected Twitter account, but never heard back. I called 311, Mike Bloomberg’s local help line for all non-emergencies, but they said, “I don’t have any information about that. Try the Department of Sanitation.”
But my frustration really ramped up when I began using the Muni on my Brooklyn block, Unit #301-3530. The thing seemed designed to drive me crazy: It inexplicably didn’t take coins, and the credit card reader, after computing for about two minutes–a drag those few winter days when it was actually cold outside–would simply say “transaction rejected” and send me back to square one. And it wasn’t my credit. Trust me, I’m good for a buck.
Infuriated, I called 311 again.
“It’s defective,” the nice if unsympathetic lady said to me. “I can put in a report.”
“But what am I supposed to do in the meantime?” I said. “I’ll get a ticket.”
“You gotta go somewhere else,” she said, as if parking spaces grow on trees.
Andrew Essex is CEO of agency Droga5.