Baltimore City Believes in Parking
O hat gets measured, gets done. That's how Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley sums up his management philosophy. And Jeff Sparrow, head of the city's Parking Authority, has put that philosophy into practice.
With an aggressive program of installing state-of-the-art technology in his garages, Sparrow and his staff of 16 have made the parking operation in Baltimore accountable and responsive. "We now have a technology base on which to build," he says.
After only about a year in the position, Sparrow has upgraded six of his garages to pay-on-foot (two more are under contract); re-signed, modernized and relighted the facilities; and begun a number of online programs to assist his customers in handling permits, both for in-garage parking and on-street programs.
When Sparrow came on board from Central Parking, he found the traditional issues: Monthlies were not in control. Exit times could be as much as 40 minutes. Cash was being mismanaged. And the residential parking program was not in control.
"The goal was to make the Parking Authority responsive to the customers, the people parking their cars with us," Sparrow says.
To help with that, he moved the parking operation from the eighth floor of a high-rise to a storefront in one of the city garages, thus creating easier access. Web-based monthly programs allow parkers to sign up and pay for permits online, without having to come into the office.
"To help familiarize our patrons with the online system, they can even sign up online when they come into the office," he says. A number of computer stations are located in the public areas for patron use.
The major change in the Baltimore parking operation has been the upgrading of the garages. The costs have been borne by the operators as part of their contract. As a contract comes due, Sparrow's group specifies that the new operator will install equipment compatible with the network that has been developed.
"We don't have to come up with the front money or go through the normal bidding process," he says. "The costs are paid out of ongoing cash flow by the operators."
All the garage equipment is tied back to the authority office. Reports are generated there and at the garage, so that the results brought in by the operators can be checked against the printouts from the central office.
All monthly cards are handled by the authority, with permits being automatically turned off if payment is not made. The operators have no control over the monthly parking, but they can review card status on-site to assist in customer service.
"The pay-on-foot systems enabled us to take the cashiers out of the booths and put them in the lanes to assist and greet the customers," Sparrow says. "We didn't lay off any staff, but use them as 'meeters and greeters.' They stand in the entry lanes to assist in the mornings and in the exit lanes to help in the evenings. The rest of the day, they are in the garage ensuring that the place is clean. They also assist customers at the pay-on-foot units and answering questions.
"The big stress is converting people to credit cards," Sparrow says. "Our 'fast, faster, fastest' program is to motivate parkers to use a credit card in and out, rather than pull a ticket."
Fast -- Pull a ticket, pay at a POF machine, and use the ticket for exit.
Faster -- Pull a ticket, pay at exit using a credit card, insert ticket at exit verifier, insert credit card after ticket, receive card back, exit.
Fastest -- Insert credit card for entry, insert same card at exit verifier, exit.
Sparrow coordinates the activities of six different commercial operators. "We are moving away from the idea of 'low bid,' " he says. "We are now looking for 'most responsive' bid." The contracts typically are three years, and all will have been rebid within the next year and a half. That means most of the garages will be upgraded by that time.
The upgrade included not only equipment, but also realignment of the lanes, plus new lighting in the entry and exit areas. "We wanted the place to be inviting on entry and to offer a feeling of security," he says. "On exit, it's important that the driver has have enough light to be able to properly see and use the equipment in the lanes."
Has the program been a success? "Well, complaints are down and revenues are up 20 percent," Sparrow says. "I guess that answers the question."
Branding has been important. Parkers in Baltimore couldn't tell the difference between authority- and private-owned garages. Now with new paint and signage, they know the difference. "We were receiving complaints about private garages over which we had no control," Sparrow says. "Now we get credit for our work, and complaints when they are appropriate."
Regarding the residential permit program, Sparrow's staff went into the neighborhoods and asked what the people wanted. "We needed to know what was their biggest frustration," he says. Most had to do with customer service.
The authority then instituted a technology-based program so residents could apply and pay for their permits online. Working with volunteer parking coordinators in each neighborhood, they set up meeting times in local churches or schools and brought laptops to the locations so residents who didn't have computers at home could sign up online there.
Over 60 percent of the permit holders sign up and pay online before coming down and picking up a permit. "What used to be a long and frustrating process is now handled in a couple of minutes," Sparrow says.
The authority doesn't handle on street enforcement as of yet, but Sparrow sees that on the horizon. "We get over 25 calls a day regarding parking tickets, which we have to refer to the transportation department," he says. "Since we get the calls, it makes sense for us to run the program."
The authority's proposal to the city focused on customer service, accountability, technology and enhanced revenue. If it receives approval to take over on-street parking enforcement, the authority will begin a program to replace meters with pay-and-display/pay-by-space units, and to upgrade existing mechanical meters to electronic units where the P-and-D units aren't appropriate.
"One of the major problems in parking is that it's so difficult to find the person who is accountable, the person who can make a difference," Sparrow says. "This is particularly true in a governmental setting. Our phone system helps solve that problem.
"Our phones are automatically forwarded from one phone to the next until they find the person being called. I input a list of numbers, and after a certain number of rings at the first number, it switches to the second, then the third, then my home, until it finds me. It means I am never off duty, but it's good customer service."
He and his senior staff don't get too many calls, he says. "If you know you are going to get a call at 10 p.m. if there is a problem in a garage, you have a tendency to fix the problem before the call comes in."
In the past year and a half, Sparrow and his group have upgraded six garages with the most current technology, with more to come; branded their garages to ensure accountability; increased revenue over 20 percent; stopped the backups in the exit lanes; turned cashiers into service personnel; streamlined the permit program; taken over control of monthly permits from the operators; and cleaned up and relighted more than half their garages.
"And that's just for starters," Sparrow says. The mayor's slogan for the city is "Believe," and Jeff Sparrow has no doubt that he and his staff are doing their job to make the parking beliefs come true.
The Parking Authority for Baltimore City has specified Sheidt and Bachmann equipment, combined with PARIS software, for their garage operations.
John Van Horn is editor of Parking Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org