UCSB Is Using 21st Century Technologies to Boost Parking Service and Revenues
August, 2004What started out as a routine overhaul of the parking systems at the University of California, Santa Barbara has ended up becoming a showcase for many of the leading off-street parking technology innovations perfected over the past 10 years. It is an example that demonstrates cutting-edge features, such as advanced wireless 802.11 networking for pay stations and pay-by-cell phone options, and environmentally friendly, solar-powered functionality.
"Our previous system was three decades old, so when I came on board in 2002, the decision was already made to update," said Tom Roberts, Director of Transportation & Parking Services at UCSB. "Being new to the industry, I didn't know what was really possible, so I consulted with my staff, and we just kept brainstorming ideas for features we knew existed and we wanted to incorporate into a total pay-by-space parking operation."
With 18,000 undergraduates, UCSB is a mid-size school within the University of California
system. Its parking program -- 6,000 parking stalls on more than 900 acres of land that previously utilized three staffed kiosks (two at key campus entrances) -- is now controlled by 53 pay stations and a state-of-the-art wireless 802.11
Previously, every vehicle entering campus had to funnel through one of the two main entrance gates (a third kiosk was in the university's only parking structure) and purchase a parking permit. Line-ups of vehicles all day long were a common sight, and it was enough to give visitors a bad first impression. The parking kiosks were actually dragging the parking system down.
The annual operating and staffing costs for the three kiosks were in excess of $300,000; the problems associated with personnel and cash security were growing; and the outlook pointed only to future cost increases.
"There's no question it was time for an upgrade to bring our parking system into the 21st century," said Roberts. "We had to envision what our users needed and find solutions to problems they didn't even know they had."
A review was undertaken and, among other new programs, it was decided that the parking system needed to be expanded to begin charging for parking in the evenings and on weekends. In addition, increased service and options such as paying by credit card, student campus card and cell phone were deemed essential to the mix.
UCSB Moves to Cutting Edge of Parking Technology
To address these issues, UCSB's Transportation & Parking Services decided to move to a pay-by-space configuration for its entire parking program, and to make automated payment stations its foundation. They also determined that the time was right to take a leadership role in implementing a range of new parking technologies and services that had by that time begun to emerge.
The top concern for Roberts was in expanding customer choice and service. He and his team believed, and the accounting results later confirmed, that parking revenues were constrained by the lack of options for payment. Further, research indicated that university parkers were not receiving the levels of service generally available in private-sector parking operations.
UCSB asked its vendor, Digital Payment Technologies of Vancouver, Canada, to deliver all available payment options, including pay-by-cell phone, and to find new ways to improve service, productivity and efficiency. The result comprised a number of industry and university technology firsts.
Pay-by-Cell Phone and
a Campus-Wide 802.11
Real-Time Parking Network
One of the most interesting features of the UCSB system is the pay-by-cell phone (PBC) payment option. Upon parking, drivers simply call the toll-free PBC vendor (Verrus) phone number listed on the front of each pay station (as well as on individual lot signs), provide their stall number, and initiate an account with their first call. The cell-phone payment system bills either Visa or MasterCard, and there is an additional 25 cents service charge paid to Verrus each time this payment method is selected.
The major benefit of pay-by-cell phone is that parkers need never go to a pay station, stand in line or brave the elements in order to pay for parking. Five minutes before expiration of a parking permit, the customer receives a text message letting them know their parking is about to expire. If they decide to
purchase more time using their Verrus account, there is no need to access a pay station or return to the vehicle. Another toll-free call solves the problem.
The new UCSB parking program tracks enforcement via a wireless 802.11 network connecting all 53 payment stations into one system. This is the first pay-by-space network to integrate cell-phone payment, to communicate in real-time and to provide enforcement data via handheld devices. PDA enforcement is also capable of streaming live data using GPS coordinates, so that field officers may update paid/unpaid stall status without returning to a pay station to generate an enforcement report. This technology saves time and eliminates erroneous citations while simultaneously improving service levels and productivity.
Solar-Powered Pay Stations
The university's commitment to green projects and the cost of hardwiring more than 50 pay stations -- some in remote locations with little power nearby -- were driving factors in choosing a solar application. Another innovative approach taken by UCSB was the creation of a mobile platform for pay stations designed for use at special events in which high demand might temporarily overwhelm fixed machines. Custom-built trailers developed by the UCSB pay station project crew transport the four machines to and from locations as needed.
The networked system enables the university to closely monitor and fine-tune its parking program on a continual basis. The electronic reporting function provides information about where and when cars are being parked, allowing the parking department to increase efficiency in enforcement and security, as well as to extract high-quality information for planning purposes.
Personal-use coupons are another innovation arising from the new system. UCSB provides free, occasional-use, incentive parking for commuters using public or mass transportation as their primary form of getting to and from campus. Coupon numbers are issued to occasional parkers, enabling them to vend their parking at no charge from the pay station by inputting a one-use numerical code.
In making the overall parking system more convenient, the university has also decided to streamline the process by which annual and quarterly permits for students, faculty and staff are distributed each year. Previously, it took 10 days and the addition of temporary staff working from a tent in a parking lot to distribute parking permits for students. Today, permits are ordered online and received via mail delivery, resulting in a process that is not only more cost-efficient for the parking department but also saves countless hours of students, faculty and staff time in picking up their parking permit each year.
Impressive Financial Results and Early Payoff
The early returns from the changeover have been significant. So far the university has closed two of the original three kiosks and been able to reassign staff. And with the new system expected to handle a substantial increase in parking and revenues without the need for
additional staff, Roberts does not anticipate any increase in full-time equivalents.
Although he had anticipated total revenue to rise, Roberts admits he was still surprised to see an increase of 26% in the first year. In his opinion, this unexpected financial return is the result of better parking choices and expanded payment options. These important advances have enabled people to tailor their parking purchase more closely to what they need, rather than having to select the closest appropriate choice from a severely limited group.
With these returns, the UCSB system upgrade is now projected to pay for itself in less than two years -- a reasonable payback period by any standards, but particularly considering the many changes made. In providing a model of innovation for the at-large parking industry, UCSB has crystallized another equally important payback: the one provided by advanced education in our high-powered, technology-driven society.
Steve Campbell is a technology writer. He can be reached at