Magazine

Pay and Display Conversion a Success in Portland

Ellis McCoy

The dominant symbol for paid parking on public streets is the single-space parking meter. For decades this device has served cities throughout the United States, signaling to customers where to park at the curb and where to complete their time-limited transactions. In Portland, OR, single-space meters have been a part of the urban landscape for over 50 years. This longevity has produced a high level of customer familiarity and conditioning -- a formula that is resistant to change.
Of course, multi-space parking meters are a viable option for operating on-street parking spaces, and like other cities around the country, Portland evaluated the opportunity to change to this technology. As of this writing, Portland is operating approximately 200 multi-space pay and display units with plans to have a total of 900 units in service by the end of 2003. The multi-space meters are replacing approximately 6,000 single-space meters in Portland's downtown core.
Portland's transition to multi-space is proving successful; customer acceptance and support is high; the downtown urban landscape is improved; and the city has realized numerous other benefits from this change in technology. Naturally, any success that has been experienced is due, in large part, to the performance of the multi-space technology itself. However, the level of success is only as good as the process that supported the decision for change.
What should be considered and what steps should be taken to support a decision to change a system that is naturally resistant to change? What follows is a discussion of some of the important steps and lessons learned in Portland, or in other words, the "dos and don'ts" of Portland's process.
1. Know the problems.
The "problem statement" is crucial to effective communication. The general public, stakeholders, and decision-makers want to know why a new investment of capital is necessary.
Single-space operation and maintenance issues, like daily out-of-service conditions, meter security problems, difficulty securing the long-term availability of parts, and coin collection service problems impacted our bottom line. Additionally, our single-space meters only accept coin payment, and we have found that this situation has restricted customer options and potentially constrains our ability to expand the system.
2. Know how technology addresses the problems.
If the solutions don't specifically address the problems, multi-space may not be the answer. Equipment demonstrations can be fun and useful, but make sure your performance plan and evaluation factors address your problems and needs.
The solution to Portland's problems centered on eliminating out-of-service conditions; increasing operating and maintenance efficiency; and providing additional customer payment options (e.g. credit/debit and smartcards). The choice of mode of operation (pay and display versus pay by space) played a pivotal role, as each mode tended to produce different outcomes and opportunities. A thorough comparison of these choices was crucial to the process.
3. Know your customers and important stakeholders.
Any change process must focus on the customer and their needs, and on-street parking has many customer groups. Important stakeholders, including all customer groups must be identified and included in the process.
In Portland, paid on-street parking exists to facilitate parking turnover. Business districts and retail associations have critical interests in how the multi-space technology will impact their customers. Adjacent neighborhood associations are always concerned about residential parking opportunities and impacts on their neighborhoods. Your largest customer group may be the general public, as their perceptions will shape your decision. Other cities and their experiences, with the same or similar technologies is an important ingredient. But sometimes the customer that is most resistant to change can be internal -- the agency staff that work to enforce and maintain the single-space system tend to develop a high level of familiarity and conditioning, and their needs and issues should be central to the process.
4. Involve stakeholders early and often.
Consensus building is a tough business and it's often a goal that cannot be reached -- not everyone will be happy with change. Decision-makers need to understand the level of stakeholder involvement. The more opportunities for involvement, the better the process.
Communities that have a highly developed ethic for public involvement tend to favor committee structures and other forms of input. Stakeholder steering committees that focus on evaluating the multi-space technology solutions can be a useful tool. Designing and implementing focus group sessions that help you identify problems and opportunities with implementing the multi-space technology should be given strong consideration. Public surveys can be helpful, especially to show: 1. If the public is ready for change. 2. The sensitivity of different technological solutions, which are critical to a final decision.
5. Don't be fooled by low bid.
Technology is a changing landscape and your choice of equipment vendor should reflect the vendor's ability and desire to grow and evolve with you. The traditional low-bid purchasing process may not facilitate this outcome.
A multi-space equipment vendor's experience with on-street applications and their experience in developing successful partnerships with other cities and agencies is more important than low bid. The price of equipment is of course important but it may be more useful as a second- or third-tier evaluator. Each proposal should demonstrate the required equipment functionality. How the vendor proposes to support the installation process and problem resolution are critical -- there are always problems that must be overcome. With technology there are opportunities for creative applications. Does your vendor have the horsepower to evolve with you?
6. Do the math.
New multi-space technologies can present opportunities that may improve revenue recovery or generate increased revenues. Portland's decision to move forward was in part based on the opportunity for self-financing.
7. Don't assume the public understands.
A new technology should be introduced in a way that supports the customer. During the first few months of operation, a strategy for education and outreach is very important. We found that tools such as informational brochures and cards, Web sites, and dedicated phone lines were helpful to customers. We also employed and trained temporary staff to provide customers with on-street assistance. The helpful assistance of enforcement personnel was also an important key. Customer support and evaluation is an ongoing part of the process.
8. The media are your ally.
The media can be one best ways of introducing change and generating community interest and understanding. Developing a proactive media strategy is the best way to accomplish building a productive and responsive media relationship.
The City of Portland selected Schlumberger equipment.
Ellis McCoy is the Parking Operations Manager for the City of Portland,
Office of Transportation. He can be reached at (503) 823-5214 or ellis.mccoy@trans.ci.portland.or.us


Side Bar 1

Portland's List of
Dos and Don'ts
* Know the Problems
* Know How Technology Addresses the Problems
* Know Your Customers and Important Stakeholders
* Involve Stakeholders Early and Often
* Don't be Fooled by Low Bid
* Do the Math
* Don't Assume the Public Understands
* The Media are Your Ally

Article Abstract from February, 2003




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