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Mobile Technology Works ...Even in a Small Town

Steve Campbell

With a population of just 18,000 people, it's hard to believe the seaside retirement city of White Rock, BC, Canada, has been using mobile parking technology to enforce street parking laws since 1991. Perhaps even more amazing is that the city is able to pull in $2 million from parking each year on an annual operating budget of just $400,000 -- an impressive achievement considering that pay parking was installed as recently as 1989.
The exciting news is that White Rock is about to enter the next stage of mobile parking enforcement. It's preparing to upgrade to the same real-time wireless system that Vancouver, Canada, has been using for the last two years: TicketManager, from Epic Data. It is also expanding the system to include the enforcement of all its municipal ordinances (bylaws), from dogs roaming free to noise to littering.
Former long-time city pay-parking manager Doug Stone explains: "In White Rock, we've always been what I would call 'aggressive followers' of new technology. As a small city with limited resources, we can't afford to pick up any new technology unless we're confident it can do the job. However, because of the growing visitor pressure on our public facilities and parking, we've had to pay very close attention to the emerging technology and planning options in order to reap the productivity benefits. That's why we were among the first to use mobile handheld technology back in the early '90s -- and that's why we're moving to real-time wireless now."
Over the last 15 years, White Rock and its ribbon of waterfront beaches, public beachfront promenade, restaurants and shopping have developed into a year-round tourist destination. Many day visitors come by car from Greater Vancouver and Washington state. The pressure on public facilities and parking near the beach mounts every year. On hot summer days, the waterfront can draw up to 15,000 visitors and more than 2,000 cars for the 1,010 existing pay-parking spots. White Rock's parking program is helping the city to control and manage this influx, while also bringing in much-needed revenue.
Pay-parking started in 1989
The impetus for White Rock's pay-parking program first arose during the 1980s, as a result of public concerns about rowdiness and drinking on the beaches. Already a popular spot with the local young people, its location just a few minutes from the U.S. border near Washington state was attracting American teenagers under 21 but old enough to drink legally in Canada. In some cases, these youth would drink to excess and loiter in the free beachfront parking lots.
This situation resulted in excessive rowdy behavior, graffiti, horn honking and loud music, and led the municipality to seek a solution to the problem. A waterfront task force was established, comprising merchants, residents and city officials. The task force adopted a community plan to control this behavior and to transform White Rock into a family destination. A seafront walking promenade was built, the parking lots were paved and improvements were made to the public facilities. In combination with strict police enforcement, the White Rock waterfront was brought back under control.
Integral to this process was the establishment of a pay-parking system -- seasonal at first -- with set time limits on each parking stall. Seeking to maximize revenue wherever possible, free parking on the waterfront was virtually eliminated. The parking time limits and strict enforcement levels resulted in constant turnover and an increase in business revenue for the waterfront merchants.
"Basically, our mandate was to put a meter on every spot we could find," says Stone, now an independent municipal parking consultant with his company Douglas Management Consulting Inc. "We had no problems charging for parking, because we viewed the parking cost as an admission fee to a great destination. Many of our visitors understood, because pay-parking meant turnover in the parking lots, something that wasn't happening before. Suddenly, people had a fair chance to park."
Lean operational focus
From the very beginning, White Rock's aim was to keep the public parking operation and administration system as lean as possible. Secondhand parking meters were purchased from other cities, and the parking-ticket enforcement process went with handheld mobile devices in an effort to reduce the volume of paper flow and in-house staff needed to manage what is traditionally a labor- and cash-intensive process.
For example, rather than build up a cadre of city employees for enforcement, the Commissionaires of British Columbia, an independent outside group, was contracted to handle the on-street enforcement. The Commissionaires have worked efficiently using eight handheld units, complete with printers.
White Rock employs TicketManager to administer its system, which began operation in 1991. "Right from the beginning, the mobile system has been fantastic," says Stone. "It has allowed us to increase our volumes dramatically, with little or no increase in staffing. We've gone from about $240,000 in revenue in 1991 to $2.4 million in 2003, with virtually the same number of civic employees. It's amazing, really."
One advantage for White Rock is that its parking management system has always been highly efficient, with just 1.3 full-time, in-house staff equivalents needed to manage it.
Outsourcing the collection of ticket fines to an outside agency also assisted in keeping costs down. A residential decal program costing $21 per year allows 8,000 residents to park free year-round at the beach parking lots, and brings in $170,000. Subsequently, a similar pay-parking scheme was instituted at the city's civic arena, for a $6 yearly fee (now $10). This latter program alone raises $75,000 each year.
The beachfront parking system was set up for a three-hour maximum stay, creating turnover and allowing for two sittings per evening for the waterfront's high-end restaurants.
Saving time by counting coins by weight
Along the way, the city found other interesting ways to reduce costs and overhead. For example, with 70 percent of all payments occurring in the form of coins, counting the cash was time-consuming work. As an alternative, now the metal money is weighed. Administrators find that, for an amount of $5,000, estimating the exact amount through the weighing process comes within $1.50 to $2 of the true amount, while saving plenty of time -- and cold, hard cash -- in the process. The counting-by-weight system also reduces the opportunity for theft.
Under White Rock's current batch-mode mobile system -- which is similar to that of many cities -- at the end of every day the ticket information in each handheld unit is downloaded to the central computer. From there it is transmitted into the Vadim municipal accounting system, and then downloaded to the collection agency. This mobile system, although effective at reducing the number of paper and non-value-added transactions, remains limited by the fact that it does not make use of valuable wireless cellular or radio technologies. Incorporating the use of real-time wireless technology will take the White Rock system to the next level of efficiency.
"We're about as efficient as we can get with the older, batch-mode technology," says Stone. "It's time to upgrade our technology and expand its usage to do more. Real-time is the next logical step."
A real-time system for all public ordinances
Besides "going real-time," White Rock will also extend its system beyond parking enforcement. The plan is to use the real-time wireless technology to enforce all city ordinances in animal control, noise, littering, etc. Being connected in real-time will enable the handheld units to send ticket information via the cellular data network to the central computer instantly. In addition, enforcement officers will be able to access the up-to-date library of bylaw infraction history with their units, putting the latest ticket information right at their fingertips. For instance, it will be valuable to know, before responding to a dog complaint, if a particular house has been previously cited for vicious dog violations.
On the parking-management side, enforcement officers on the street will have the ability to spot multiple repeat offenders and to check cars displaying residential permits for the fraudulent use of permits by non-residents. If a car owner has exhibited abusive behavior toward enforcement officers in the past, this will show up in the online notes section of the vehicle listing. Another feature is officer safety: The system allows management to track the officer's recent movements in case of trouble. The officer can also radio for help with the quick press of a button.
The real-time aspect of the system will also allow White Rock to provide more responsive customer service to car owners who phone in immediately to complain or discuss their tickets. In the batch-mode system, the ticket particulars would not be downloaded and available in the office to review until the end of the day at the earliest. With a real-time system, they're available in the central office right away, enabling the customer service rep to address any questions and issues that might arise if a parker phones in immediately after receiving a ticket.
The "quick connection" aspect of the real-time wireless technology also allows the enforcement officer to patch information immediately through to police computers, as well as to call for a tow truck with just one press of a button. No more radio dispatch calls or busy signals: The officer presses the button and gets on with his or her day.
Pay-by-cell phone becomes a reality
Being able to pay for your meter or parking lot spot by cell phone and credit card rather than cash is definitely a key advantage. But the issue arises of how an enforcement officer can check a car parked by cell phone if it doesn't have a paper receipt on the dashboard. No problem with the updated system: Punching in the vehicle license gives the enforcement officer the data on how much parking time a driver has purchased for a particular spot. "Pay-by-cell holds the potential to greatly reduce the amount of coins and cash we need to collect and count," Stone says. "Plus, it gives customers a more convenient payment option. Real-time wireless technology is what makes all this possible."
While customer service is always important, generating revenue is a top concern these days as city governments increasingly face revenue shortfalls. White Rock's case shows that real-time wireless enforcement holds the same potential to maximize revenue for smaller cities such as White Rock as it does for big cities such as Vancouver. As Stone concludes: "Big or small, it's all about becoming as efficient as possible and generating more revenue with the same or increased service levels. Applied properly, the new technologies are making remarkable things happen."

Steve Campbell is a technical writer and corporate communications consultant in Vancouver, BC. He can be reached at scampbell@campbellpr.bc.ca. Douglas Stone is managing director of municipal parking consultants Douglas Management Consulting Inc. He can be reached at Douglasmci@shaw.ca.

Article Abstract from February, 2004




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