Cash sucks, but so does plastic
The London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has lost £120,000 to theft from its parking meters over the past year, and the tools of the trade for the thieves are a power drill and a vacuum cleaner.
Parking meters, sitting there unattended and laden with coins, have always been a target for theft, although in the past, the way the thief has accessed the money has varied from forcing it open with a crowbar through to hitting it with a sledge hammer. It is, perhaps, evidence of how much batteries have improved recently and made equipment more affordable, that the modern thief uses a battery-power drill to bore a hole into the machine through which a hose can be inserted, and a battery-powered portable vacuum cleaner used to suck the coins out.
Surely, in this day and age, coins for the parking meter are an anachronism. You can pay by card for train tickets and bus tickets, and in most parts of London, the buses already have simplified ticketing systems and take plastic payments only. Shops can take plastic, cafes can take plastic, so why do so many parking meters still cling to coins? Surely it is only a matter of time.
We have to be careful though that we don't lose the convenience of cash. Some car parks make cashless parking very easy, with a camera running automated number plate recognition on entry and exit to a barrierless car park, and a central payment terminal where you can key in your car registration, wave a card over the reader, and that's all there is to it. Others require payment using a mobile phone, or worse still, require you to install an app on a smart phone and "register", which is simply too much complication for what should be a simple transparent cash-equivalent transaction.
We are using less cash and more plastic each year, and there are lots of advantages to going to a cashless society, provided we have a simple and uniform system which is open to everyone, and does the things cash can do. It has to work for both adult and child, for pensioners, the employed, the unemployed, and the homeless. It has to cope not only with the people who want to pay for groceries in shops, but also with people who need to give their kids the money for the school trip, or who want to lend a tenner to their mate. And it has to be robust enough for you to be able to spend money even when you are in a dead zone with no phone coverage.
Plenty of research and our own experience shows that personal budgeting is easier to manage when you can see the cash in your wallet, whereas it is harder to manage and easier to overspend when it is abstract numbers that you can check at a cash machine and spend painlessly with a wave of a card. Other research shows that levels of cash use is a good indicator of poverty and homeless, and that rural areas use proportionately more cash than infrastructure-rich urban areas. As we move towards being a cashless society, what measures are we taking to ensure we are maintaining a money system that works for everyone in our society?
A recent study and report entitled "Access to Cash Review" compiled by experts from the financial services sector, warns that simple market forces will not keep cash viable for as long as people need it, and that government initiatives and guarantees may be needed. The consumer group, Which, has called for a single regulator to have a statutory duty to protect access to cash and build a sustainable cash infrastructure for the UK.
In the last few days, Apple has announced its own Apple card, a payments application and service for the iPhone, and a physical card for outlets which do not support Apple Pay. Initially this is aimed at the USA marketplace, with first releases this summer. No mere plastic for Apple though. Its card is made of titanium, and featureless apart from the Apple logo and the owner's name etched into the cool metal, with no card numbers, expiry dates, or signatures to interrupt the arty, almost fetishistic design. Since you will also need an expensive iPhone to use it, the system is clearly not aimed at everyone in society.
28th March 2019
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