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Usability in the Urban Environment: Street Parking Signs

arlington dc / user experience / usability / blog

How often have you been in a city, as a resident or a visitor, and come across something that seemed so insanely complicated that it boggled your mind? “Why on earth did they do this this way? They should have just [enter brilliant alternative idea here].” Usability in the Urban Environment is designed to be a monthly blog series that seeks to apply basic usability standards to issues that residents and visitors grapple with daily when interacting with an urban environment. First on the agenda: Washington, DC’s parking signs.

DC Parking Signs

Look at the image to the right and ask yourself if you could answer the following pertinent questions relatively quickly from this signpost:
a) Can I park here? b) How much will it cost me to park here? c) How do I pay to park here?

Odds are pretty high that you couldn’t answer these three questions quickly enough to avoid blocking traffic behind you while you idled in the lane. Heck, the odds are pretty strong that you couldn’t answer the second question at all from looking at this conglomeration of street signs. So what could be done to simplify these signs? First, let’s identify the issues:

  1. The No Parking portion of a sign is not always necessary. Many signposts in the District point to both parts of the street where you can park and parts where you can’t park. This is a necessary thing to do in places where people might intuitively think that they can park somewhere that they actually can’t. For example, in DC, you can’t park within a certain number of feet of an intersection. This is probably a wise instance in which to list both the “parking” and “no parking” rules, as not everyone will be familiar with that rule. However, there are other instances where the no parking rules are relatively universal; for example, every driver I’ve ever talked to knows that you can’t block a driveway or a fire hydrant when you park your car. Therefore, it probably isn’t necessary to outline the no parking rules for that particular part of the street on a sign; it just provides more information for the driver to process by telling them what they already know.
  2. Too many similar signs cause driver confusion. There are 4 signs on this one signpost. Combining signs where it’s logical and differentiating others could drastically reduce the amount of time a driver has to spend figuring out whether they can park somewhere or not.
  3. Despite all the signage, they don’t even convey the most important information. There are three permanent signs and one temporary sign on this signpost. They tell you where you can park, where you can’t park, and how you can pay. One thing they do not tell you is how much it costs in the first place! One would think that, out of 4 parking signs, at least one of them would mention how much the parking actually costs. It seems especially nonsensical to tell someone how to pay for something without telling them how much it costs. Adding pricing to the sign would be beneficial in helping drivers determine whether they want to park there or explore other options (another street, a private lot, a parking deck, etc). However, adding pricing to a sign isn’t as easy as it seems, because…
  4. Parking rules in the District of Columbia are incredibly complicated. DC’s street parking laws can get kind of unwieldy. In some areas, you can park free on weekends; in some, you have to pay on Saturday, but it’s free on Sunday. Many areas are resident-only but only during certain hours; some have resident-only parking on only one side of the street. And some, like this particular street, have parking rules that vary drastically depending on whether there’s a baseball game or not. Take a look at Figure B, which is the parking meter on the block where this sign is located. The layout of this meter has its own problems, but for our purposes here, we’ll focus only on what the costs are: $1.50 for the first hour, $2.00 for the second, and $2.50 for the third, Monday through Saturday from 7am to 6:30pm. That’s already wordy, but it gets more complicated if you look over to the left side and see the “Stadium Events” section and notice that it costs exponentially more whenever there’s an event at the stadium (this particular meter is 3 blocks from Nationals Park where the local Major League Baseball team plays).

DC Parking Instructions

As usability researchers, it’s probably outside our scope to try to influence actual government pricing policy; in other words, trying to significantly simplify issue number 4 would be a non-starter with the District government. However, what we CAN do is employ usability testing to generate ways in which to fix the other issues:

  1. Lab-test the parking signs. An inexpensive way to test these signs would be to recruit people who drive in DC who regularly park on the street and bring them into a lab. Show them a variety of parking signs, ask them what’s confusing and what isn’t, and solicit their feedback on how they would like to see the information displayed. Iterative testing could also be employed here, where multiple rounds of sign mock-ups are created and then tested, resulting in (theoretically) the clearest possible design by the end of the last testing round.
  2. Measure sign comprehension after people park. Another low cost option would be to print a stack of parking comprehension surveys and give them to people on these blocks after they park their cars. Ask basic questions like “how much does it cost to park here,” “which sections of these blocks can you legally park on,” or “did you notice the emergency no parking flyer?” and see how many people correctly comprehended the information on the signs when they parked their vehicles. You could also use qualitative methods and simply count the number of people who park illegally over a certain number of hours. The advantage of this method is that it requires no advance participant recruitment and it could be done in conjunction with the first option for a more well-rounded set of recommendations.
  3. Track the eye movements of people when they park. This last option is a little trickier to implement, but could yield a lot of useful information. Tobii just launched a new set of eye-tracking glasses that are specifically recommended for use in driving usability studies. A study could be designed where the same recruitment criteria for participants in option 1 was recruited to actually drive around the city and park in places. Tasks could be set up to tell them to park on specific blocks or in specific neighborhoods, but only if they were allowed to park there. They would have to figure out for themselves whether it was legal to park in a certain area or not in order to score positively on task accuracy. Additionally, you could measure time to first fixation on each street sign, and also capture the order in which participants looked at the signs.

There are plenty of other ways one could test these parking signs, but if the tow trucks that circle my block in abundance during baseball games are any indication, something needs to be done to simplify the parking rules in the District of Columbia.

Got any ideas for other ways we could test these signs? Sound off in the comments!

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