The Information Technology Revolution in the Parking Industry
The last 15 years in the parking industry have seen a revolution from a preponderance of "cigar-box" operations to a high technology, increasingly automated business. The methods are continually being refined but the goals are to increase efficiency, reduce waste, prevent theft, enhance the customer experience and optimize fees to achieve consistently good bottom-line results. The future promises to continue the trends already in place while new technologies provide new opportunities.
The first generation of information systems of the 1980s and early 1990s were revolutionary to garage management. They offered the garage manager a way to track and control their contract parkers and brought many new checks and balances to transient management. The PC and parking software made policies and reports that previously had been difficult or impossible, routine and industry-standard. Garages that implemented these systems made more money because fees could be optimized, staff could be trimmed and there was less theft and waste.
As useful and profitable as the new tools were, there was room for improvement. In response to concerns that the systems needed to be easier to use, software was developed that used Graphical User Interfaces like Microsoft Windows. To make the systems more robust, software was migrated to powerful, solid operating systems like Microsoft Windows NT, 2000 and XP, as well as others like UNIX. Reports in the early days were often columns of numbers: useful. But now analysis, graphs, ad-hoc query tools and configurable solutions complement the simple reports. To increase customer satisfaction and give a competitive edge, solutions with credit, debit and smart cards have become commonplace, with more on the way.
As we go forward, the trend of "data everywhere" will likely continue and probably accelerate. Networks of PCs with parking software for many users allow simultaneous use of the system. Off-site access by management is accommodated by Wide Area Networks, Virtual Private Networks that use the Internet as a secure transport and secure Web pages. Databases are now most often stored in portable, industry-standard formats. Automation has been designed to download updated configuration data to far-flung locations, and transaction data can be collected from many garages.
"Small devices, whether they're pocket-size, wrist-size, tablet-size or wall-size, will come together to provide a deeply changed and exciting experience." That was Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates forecast in his keynote address at this year's Comdex computer trade show. His forecast is already being reflected in the parking industry. Reports and alerts can be sent to a busy manager's PDA (Personal Data Assistant) or mobile telephone. An on-line database vehicle look-up can be performed wirelessly with a PDA. Permits can be scanned, checked for validity and cross-checked in a database to see that a multi-vehicle patron has only one vehicle present. These and many more functions are possible because of advances in small wireless devices and much-improved wireless data coverage.
A less explored area, but one that has the potential of creating an enhanced experience for consumers, is customer access to information. A parking operator could provide a service that sent a scheduled notification of space availability to subscribing patrons on their mobile telephone as they commute into a downtown area. A Web page could be provided for employers and individuals to sign-up for contract parking -- or make payments. A token award could be offered to those that recruit a new parker -- redeemable on the Web site. A patron could pre-pay for reserved event parking and print a bar-coded ticket on their printer to be validated on entry. These are just a few ideas that could fill 21st century garages, while yesterday's lots languish.
As information technology moves forward, we will continue to see parallel developments in the parking industry. The coming years will continue the trends of the past -- and may hold some surprises. The companies that create and supply the parking technology of today and the future stand ready to meet the challenge.
Brian McGann is V.P. of Software Development at McGann Software Systems. He graduated in 1987 with a B.S. in Computer Information Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org