‘Take a deep breath’ before using Detroit’s ...

‘Take a deep breath’ before using Detroit’s new parking app, says city parking director

The new app brings bells and whistles -- and a healthy dose of frustration.

Let’s be real. Parking in Detroit – well, in any city really – can be a pain in the ass. Which is why it’s always important to make the process as seamless as possible. 

And seamless is what we had with the Park Detroit app for years. Punch in your car’s license plate number and payment method, click in the zone you’re in, select how long you want to pay for, and boom, you’re all set to go about your business.

But the city of Detroit decided that that system was lacking. So a few years back, Keith Hutchings, the director of the city’s municipal parking department, and his team decided it was time to revamp the app’s capabilities, taking it from “Fred Flintstone to ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’” he said.

The new parking app launched late last year, promising to to make it easier for residents and visitors to not just pay for parking from their phones, but to be able to plan ahead with the capability to view available parking spaces on a map in real time.

And there may be side benefits. The new app also allows users to pay for parking on private lots in advance (hello, no more having to stop at the ATM machine to fetch money for the $20-plus lots). If commuters can see ahead of time what their parking options are and can choose according to their budgets, that could eventually drive lot operators to bring down their prices, according to Hutchings

It all sounds like the beginning of a brave new era in parking. Except for one thing: Users have been having an extremely difficult time actually using the app.

“The new parking app is a huge downgrade from the old one, which was simple and worked perfectly well. The UI and UX on the new one is so bad. It makes me so mad that the city originally solved a problem with something simple but then decided to make it worse for no apparent reason,” Detour reader Peter Croce told us in January.

Another user, Jim Manheim, told Detour last month: “Can’t get the parking app to work! By the time it finds my car and I go through everything else, it times out. Bring back the old one, which was fine!”

Indeed, I had my issues with the new app at first. I think it all came down to a lack of effort on the city’s part to properly educate customers about the subtle but crucial differences between the old app and the new one. 

Driving downtown to run some errands at the beginning of the year, I opened up the old app and was notified that it was no longer in service and that I needed to upload a new one on my iPhone. By the time I’m paying for parking, I’m usually already walking down the street, anticipating that all I need to do is remember the parking zone I’m in. I was wrong. Nothing about the new interface was intuitive. 

I saw a map, making me think, “Well hey, was I supposed to stand in front of my car so that the GPS would recognize where I was?” The system crashed on me the first few times I tried to use it. 

But after a few weeks of stumbling through the process, I got the hang of it. By Valentine’s Day, when my partner and I went to the Shelby speakeasy downtown, I was mildly impressed that I could zoom out and view the available parking spots before turning off Fort Street so we wouldn’t become one of those people creeping around each block at 5 mph looking for a place to park. 

“We would anticipate that some people would have some angst in the change because the original app was very simplistic and very efficient,” Hutchings said. “It did one thing. You simply put your number in, and (you paid for your) parking (using) your account. So it didn’t do a lot. We hadn’t updated it in seven years. It actually was one of the most outdated apps in the country.”

In the first week of February. after more than 50,000 downloads of the new app, the city rolled out an update to address some of the user difficulties.

Several reasons customers may have not been able to complete transactions have already been addressed, Hutchings said. Another complaint from users was a loss of the ability to type in the parking zone number in the way that customers were accustomed to with the previous version. That was always available, said Hutchings, but was originally visible in the new app only at the end of the payment cycle. So the city worked with developers to make that option available at the beginning of the payment process. Officials also made sure that customers had the option to provide their payment information at the beginning of the session rather than the end to keep in line with what they were used to. 

And iPhones users may have experienced sluggish performers at first, as Apple was pushing a lot of cell phones into low data bandwidth. Hutchings said the department was able to address that within a couple of weeks.

The new app does not currently accept American Express, an issue that the city is working to address. 

Users who still crave the same simplistic nature of the old app have the option to use a filter option on the right-hand side of the map so that they only view on-street, metered parking, and not off-street parking options like garages. Think Google Maps, where you can decide whether you want traffic conditions or freeway routes to be visible.

Hutchings says the city continues to hear feedback from users and will continue to improve service based on that input. For now, he said, take your time to get to know the new interface.

“The app is a lot more complex than what we had before, but it’s really fairly intuitive once you kind of take a deep breath and, say, wait a minute, this is different.”