The Sunday People printed an article about the “Ten Worst Motorway Services” last weekend, which was picked up be several other media outlets and led to me being interviewed on a couple of BBC local radio stations, Kent and Surrey. BBC Radio Kent had done an interesting vox pop as part of the feature where they spoke to people at a local MSA (not sure which one, but I suspect Maidstone) and asked them what their main complaints were. Unsurprisingly, I supppose (but worth noting, given that their audience is probably somewhat different to that of the website), their complaints were much the same as those here – prices and cleanliness.
The next day, BBC Radio Surrey asked me what I thought the main complaints were and what the operators could do about it. My response, in the nutshell soundbite allowed for on radio, was cleanliness and parking. Coming back to the website admin system to check for new comments, I was reminded again that Moto seemingly have made it the job of one of their staff to check for parking complaints here and continually tell people about the appeals procedure. It’s certainly an issue which generates a lot of traffic in the comment system.
So, what do I think the operators ought to do to improve their reputation? I think that most MSA users, while they grumble about the prices, are generally willing to accept that it’s the price (literally) that they pay for the convenience of just being able to pull off the motorway and stop rather than having to leave the motorway and hunt for somewhere that’s both open and offering what they want. What they don’t accept, though, is being treated unreasonably when they actually do use an MSA. So this is my open letter to the MSA operators, based on my own experience of service areas and the comments on this website, with my suggestions about how to improve things.
Firstly, cleanliness. Yes, I know that a lot of your customers are their own worst enemies in this respect. I’ve been at an MSA and watched a family finish their burgers in the outside seating area and then just drop the wrappers on the floor rather than walk 30 yards to a bin. I’ve seen brain-dead smokers drop smouldering cigarette butts on the path just outside the door. So you have my sympathy. A lot of your customers are antisocial at best and positively malevolent at worst. But not all of them. Not even most of them. And by letting the antisocial ones spoil it for the rest, you’re colluding in it. By not clearing up litter, the message you give is “dropping litter doesn’t matter”.
The same applies to the toilets. Yes, keeping them clean is hard, especially when they’re abused. But, again, by letting them deteriorate you’re encouraging people not to care by giving the impression that you don’t care either.
Secondly, parking. I think most people would accept that it’s fair to pay for parking beyond the standard free period. But don’t make it a rip-off. Don’t make people pay for 24 hours if they’re only going to be there for three or four. Let people pay for exactly what they’ve used. If someone comes in for a break and stays for two hours thirty minutes instead of two hours, then let them pay for the thirty extra minutes before they leave.
Make it easy to pay. Have machines in the car parks (yes, in the car parks – not some obscure location inside the building) that people can put real money, or credit cards, into. Payment by phone is fine for geeks and gadget addicts, but most of your customers don’t fall into that category. In any case, a lot of people (including myself) who are geeks and/or gadget addicts are reluctant to give away our mobile phone numbers to an organisation we don’t know and trust.
Stop using ineffective ANPR systems to monitor parking – probably the biggest source of complaints about these is that they fail to distinguish between multiple visits in one day. Saying that people can appeal isn’t the answer – the answer is to fix the problem which is generating spurious charges!
My suggestion would be to install barriers on the car parks and use the pay-on-exit system similar to many municipal car parks. If people leave before the two hour free period is up, they get charged nothing. If they leave later than that, they pay for exactly what they’ve used. No arguments, no spurious charges, no excess penalties for a relatively short overstay. If that’s not practical, then use the old-fashioned method of dispensing tickets from a machine and having them checked by parking attendants. Either way, requiring people to jump through hoops to pay and then penalising them over the odds when they don’t is simply unacceptable.
Any chance of these suggestions being taken on board? It would be nice to think so. Maybe some of the newer and smaller operators could have a go at shaming the big three by adopting a more user-friendly approach. Or maybe it will take a mass revolt by customers to force a change. If you get a parking ticket, then appeal. Always appeal. Bog down the appeals process in so many complaints that it becomes obvious the system needs to change. After all, Heather and Gareth need to have something to show for their efforts here in pointing people towards it.