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Emirates Capital Host for Parking Symposium

By Peter Guest

The third Middle East Parking Symposium (MEPS 2010) took place at the Abu Dhabi (UAE) National Exhibition Centre in October. The three-day expo and conference had moved to that venue to allow for a larger exhibition space, and this year there were more than 40 exhibitors. They included a delegation from the U.S.-based International Parking Institute (IPI), which was supporting the show and provided a number of the speakers. The exhibition had an international flavor with booths from India, China, Germany and the UK, as well as the US/IPI delegation.
The main backer of MEPS 2010 was the Abu Dhabi Department of Transport (DOT), which took over responsibility for rolling out the capital cityís Parking Management Program, or Mawaqif, in 2009. When fully implemented, it will cover more than 70,000 street parking spaces. So far, about 18,000 are in place, with the program due to be completed by mid-2011, about a year sooner than expected.
The city has a deficiency in parking supply, partly caused by the failure to enforce building standards that would have ensured that private developers provided basement parking in new buildings. To address this deficit, the cityís DOT is embarking on a program to build a further 23 underground parking facilities. These are being promoted as Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) projects, and offers to build two robotic and six conventional car parks are being solicited for this year.
The DOT people are very gung-ho about these projects, but others are raising questions about the commercial viability of the facilities when, with the current tariffs, it seems unlikely that income would be sufficient to cover the costs. Abu Dhabi had similar problems some time ago when the city attempted to attract bidders for their existing car parks. With no street controls those BOT projects had no takers, and eventually the government had to build and operate the car parks themselves.
The program was originally launched using a single supplier (Parkeon) for the planned 3,000 parking meters. However, in a surprise move, the DOT recently decided to opt for a second supplier, using the German ATB meter, which is widely installed elsewhere in the UAE. It also seems that the meters now being installed do not have the planned credit card facility. The DOT has launched a pre-subscription mobile phone payment system and has plans to launch the planned open-access mParking service in the future.
In another surprise move, the Abu Dhabi DOT also announced the introduction of a rechargeable parking card in addition to the current one-use decrementing cards. (A similar rechargeable card system was abandoned in Madrid because of the level of fraudulent recharging that was taking place.) The planned IT service also seems to be behind schedule since a year on, parking tickets are still handwritten and residentsí parking permits are still paper-based.
There has been complaints by residents in some of the newly controlled areas that there still is not enough legal parking in some places and that when they return home at night, they canít find a space and either have to park too far from home or get a ticket. In a bid to address this concern, the DOT announced that, from November on, after 9 p.m. when the paid parking charges stop, only residents will be allowed to park in these spaces. No comment was offered on the implications of this decision for the shops and restaurants in the affected areas, many of which stay open well beyond 10 at night.
One of the most surprising pieces of news at the 2010 Middle East Parking Symposium was that Apcoa, one of the biggest operators in Europe, was withdrawing from the region. The company caused a major upset when it withdrew from bidding after being shortlisted for the Parking Management Program in 2007. The company then returned to Abu Dhabi to run the parking operation at the National Exhibition Centre, but when its contract ended in September 2010, the decision was made to walk away from the region.
On a more positive note, the people from Sharjah, UAE, used the show to launch a new iPhone application that allows locals to pay parking fines, reserve parking and do other clever stuff. They caused a stir last year when they showed the prototype system where a driver had to log on to a meter when paying and their legal status was then checked by an inspector using a motor scooter equipped with ANPR. A year on, and with a change of meter supplier, the system is about ready to go live, with about 200 of the new type of meters being installed.
The whole region seems to be obsessed with robotic or automated parking at the moment; about a quarter of the MEPS 2010 exhibitors were offering various systems. There are, I believe, two functional robotic car parks in the UAE at present, both in Dubai. One is a very small demonstration project, with fewer than 30 slots, and the other is a 765-space structure serving the Ibn Battuta Gate Complex in Dubai City, which according to the suppliers is working well, one year after opening.
Sometimes the promoters of robotics seem to be their own worst enemies, with claims that are patently ridiculous and take no account of how people actually use cars and parking. For example, quoted parking and vehicle recovery times take no account of delays while people put packages in the trunk, strap in the kids and so on.
Don Monahan from Walker Parking Consultants gave an objective and realistic assessment of some of these issues in a thoughtful paper that was based on the outcomes of real projects, rather than marketing-speak. Automated car parks do have their place and can deliver a credible service in the right place at the right time. Indeed, sometimes they are the only viable solution. But please, guys, stop the fairytales; nobody believes you anymore.
Peter Guest is Parking Todayís correspondent for all things British and European, with frequent business forays into the Middle East. He can be reached at peterguestparking@hotmail.co.uk.

Article Abstract from January, 2011




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