Originally published in the May 2022 edition of IPMI Parking & Mobility Magazine 

As leaders in the digital mobility industry, our mission is to collaborate with partners to make our cities and public spaces more livable, more convenient, and safer for everyone. Core to this mission is ensuring that all people have equitable parking and curbside access by incorporating the principles of accessibility and inclusion into our solutions. More than simply providing minimal levels of functionality to meet specific needs, an accessible and inclusive approach focuses on empowering consumers with solutions that help everyone enjoy the full benefits of a modern parking program, regardless of their physical, technical, or financial circumstances. 

Often the impact of accessibility on our industry is undervalued, overlooked, or misunderstood. When the topic of accessible parking arises, the conversation is nearly always centered on issues of physical accessibility. Ensuring drivers with physical disabilities have access to parking is still a priority, but it is only the beginning. To make the parking experience truly inclusive for everyone, we must adopt a wider, more nuanced view of our customers’ challenges and unique needs.  

As digital parking solutions become more integral to parking and curbside management, it will be increasingly important to make changes that proactively meet customers where they are. By incorporating inclusion and accessibility into every aspect of digital parking operation and design, we can improve both the parking experience and quality of life for our customers and clients.  

Widening the Scope and Ambition of Accessibility 

For years, most parking industry discussions surrounding accessibility were limited to the design and management of physical parking spaces. That began to change in December 2000, with the introduction of Section 508 into the ADA, which set out guidelines for providing access to digital spaces for Americans living with disabilities. When Section 508 was introduced, only 52% of Americans were active online. Today, that number is over 90% (Pew Research Center, 2021). Across all demographics – age, gender, income, education – Americans are spending more time online than ever before, and using websites and apps to conduct business and simplify their everyday life. 

Not only are Americans increasingly online, but they are increasingly mobile. Pew Research estimates that 97% of Americans own some form of cellphone, and of those people 85% specifically have a smartphone. The smartphone also plays a major role in online activity in general, and nearly 20% of households access the internet exclusively via a smartphone. 

Unsurprisingly, Americans with disabilities are also spending much more time online. According to the 2020 Census, more than 40 million Americans have some type of disability. And while those with disabilities are slightly less likely to be active online, 72% of Americans who identify as having a disability also own a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2021).  

As we consider the future of digital parking solutions, we must keep physical and digital access top of mind for those living with disabilities. But it’s equally critical that we consider and solve for other barriers to digital access – financial barriers, language barriers, technical barriers – if we wish to provide truly inclusive and equitable access for all. 

New Challenges in Equitable Parking Leveling the Playing Field: How Digital Parking Solutions Are Rethinking Equity and Inclusion

The potential impact of accessibility and inclusion on our industry is undeniable. Businesses and organizations in every industry around the globe have had to drastically rethink what accessibility means and how to approach it in a modern, digital context. At ParkMobile, we recently underwent an extensive accessibility audit of all our digital experiences. A key thing we learned was that improving accessibility ultimately improves the digital parking experience for everyone, both people with unique usability needs and without.  

In other words, improving the experience for one set of needs will improve the experience for all – and that principle can be applied to other barriers to access as well. 

Financial Barriers 

Parking rates and curbside policies are an important consideration in making parking more inclusive. For many years, parking operators have strived to make fair parking policies that still address the unique needs of individuals or businesses, whether helping students park on campus, or ensuring residents in a destination town can make fair use of their streets. There are also further opportunities to embrace the benefits of digital payment without excluding the unbanked and underbanked population. According to a 2019 report from the Federal Reserve, roughly 22% of U.S. adults are unbanked or underbanked, accounting for about 55 million adults. While there are relatively few households (6%) that have no bank account (unbanked), about 16% of Americans have a bank account but also make frequent use of other financial services like check cashing services and payday loans (underbanked). While more parking operators consider reducing on-street hardware and cash transactions as a way to streamline operations, digital services can help close the gap and provide the underbanked community with alternative ways to pay.  

Technical Barriers  

As parking operators shift more of their operations to digital solutions, we should also consider technical limitations, particularly for those without access to smartphones. While smartphone ownership has increased dramatically in recent years – up 15% since 2016 – 12% of Americans still rely on a traditional cellphone, while 3% have no mobile phone at all. And among those with smartphones, the need to download and install an app can be a significant barrier to secure parking. Digital parking solutions must evolve to deliver equitable experiences that support all levels of technical access, whether by phone, mobile web, or native apps. 

Language Barriers 

According to a 2018 study by the Center for Immigration Studies, roughly 22% of the US population, or 67.2 million adults, speak a language other than English in the home. Additionally, the 2020 Census reports that over 8% of Americans are “less than fluent” in English. In some communities that number is over 35%. For those Americans, having both physical and digital parking solutions available in their native language is critical to ensuring inclusive and equitable access.  

Rethinking Accessibility from the Ground Up 

While inclusivity and accessibility are often discussed together, they are not interchangeable terms. “Accessibility” typically refers to the specific ADA guidelines ensuring equitable physical and digital access for Americans with disabilities. “Inclusion” goes beyond that, asking us to empathetically consider a broad set of needs for anyone whose circumstances or experiences may introduce unique barriers or challenges. 

The flexibility of digital parking solutions gives the parking industry the unique opportunity to grapple with inclusion and equity concerns proactively and efficiently. By combining accessibility and inclusive design, we can deliver digital solutions that go beyond simply complying with standards to meaningfully improve the quality of life for all of our customers and clients. If we take a holistic approach to accessibility and inclusivity, we can find innovative ways to incorporate them into all aspects of digital parking – from policy, to creating flexible systems, to the design and experience of the apps themselves. 

Digital parking solutions have another major advantage when it comes to driving equity and inclusion initiatives: the ease and speed with which changes can be made. While some changes to digital experiences may have real world impacts on signage, meters, or other physical infrastructure, many potential improvements require only software changes. This gives digital solution providers a unique chance to quickly have a significant impact on equitable and inclusive access, particularly in the following areas: 

Flexible Payment Options 

Having a wide variety of payment methods is a significant first step in helping overcome many of the technical and financial barriers facing our communities. Increasing the number of options both in the forms of payment that can be accepted and the means by which payment can be submitted allows digital solution providers to reach a significantly broader segment of people than before. Alternative payment methods can better support the underbanked community, while offering payment by phone or SMS can help address technical limitations for those without smartphones. Additionally, people who don’t explicitly need these solutions may find them more comfortable or convenient to use than the app experience. 

Accessible Product Design 

With 85% of Americans now possessing smartphones, people are becoming increasingly comfortable using them for more of their day-to-day business – booking travel, scheduling grocery delivery, and finding parking. Therefore, it’s vital that we consider how those digital experiences look, feel, and function for Americans with disabilities or visual differences. 

One key way to ensure equitable access is to give people control of their digital experiences by capitalizing on the capabilities of mobile devices, like adjusting text size or using voice controls. Ensuring that colors and contrast allow for easy legibility not only supports colorblind users, but improves visibility for all users. Similar and ongoing improvements to client backend systems and reporting tools are equally important to improve usability across the board. 

Equitable Policy and Curbside Access 

Curbside management and digital permits are increasingly an area of interest for cities that employ smart parking and mobility solutions. A digital curb with automated and flexible pricing options has unique applications in the context of inclusion and equity. For instance, universities may utilize smart parking solutions to automatically extend discounts to students based on email. A major city may want a digital permit system to offer varying options for ADA parking residents versus non-residents, or any combination of other factors that may affect curbside access. Because enforcement is usually integrated into these systems, these kinds of dynamic policies and digital permitting can be an invaluable tool to ensure more people get equitable access to specific areas. 

Localization for Multiple Languages 

Nearly one quarter of the US population speaks a language other than English at home and some communities serve a significant population of non-fluent English speakers. Digital solutions are well-positioned to support these communities with localized experiences that allow them to interact with an experience in their native language. Not only does localization extend the benefits of smart mobility to more people, but it also helps increase compliance by ensuring non-English or non-native speakers fully understand the rates and policies for their parking location. 

Data-Driven Decisions 

As more and more cities enable digital parking solutions, and more communities adopt them, we as an industry are just beginning to tap into a growing pool of data about how, and by whom, parking is being utilized. This data has a multitude of potential uses, including helping our clients better understand the unique needs, challenges, and barriers for the local communities they serve. With accurate, real-time visibility into areas like parking inventory, usage, occupancy, and more, clients are empowered to leverage data to shape and inform policy and infrastructure decisions. 

The Journey to Equitable Parking is Only Beginning 

We are advocates for equity, inclusivity, and accessibility, not experts. We believe we have an enormous opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the communities we serve, but no change can happen without listening to and engaging with a wide variety of voices and experiences. More importantly, incorporating principles of equity, inclusivity, and accessibility into our software and experiences is a marathon, not a sprint, representing a long-term commitment to widening access for the communities we serve. Fundamentally, embracing accessibility and inclusion represents a massive chance for the parking industry to engage with new and underserved populations, ensure equitable access to parking for all, and to lay the groundwork for more inclusive, data-driven policy and infrastructure decisions that will benefit both customers and clients. 

About the Authors 

Kara Womack, VP Product, ParkMobile 

Brooke Feldman, VP Account Management, ParkMobile