All Parking is Local
To borrow a phrase from the world of politics: When it comes to municipalities, all parking is local. Kevin Uhlenhaker, managing director of SLS Insights, which provides technology consulting to the parking industry, goes even further. “Parking is hyper local,” said Uhlenhaker. “Even within a city, the way a university deals with parking is different than downtown.”
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t common themes in the issues faced by municipalities.
“A lot of our decisions fall into two big baskets: big infrastructure projects and the presentation of parking options to our public,” said Chad Gamble, parking manager for the city of Lansing, Michigan.
Part of a user-friendly solution is effectively communicating all that is available to the customers.
“There aren’t any cookie cutter solutions, but there are a couple cookie-cutter problems,” said Julie Dixon, principal consultant with Dixon Resources Unlimited. Coming up with the solutions to these problems lies in identifying the issues that need resolving, utilizing the right tools to implement flexible solutions and then adding sufficient support and enforcement to see them through.
Identifying the Issues
Within each city, there are multiple kinds of parking, each with their own issues, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government who studies urban policy as it relates to transportation and mobility. According to Zipper, these can range from downtown parking garages and street parking (where finding a space is often at a premium, especially at certain times of the week) to suburban locations (where the parking might be free), and even parking at home, where if you park on the street is still part of the public space and therefore, in certain municipalities, might require a permit.
But it’s the downtown city core that usually takes most of the attention because of the issues inherent in people jockeying for spaces on busy work days. “A lot of congestion is people circling for parking,” said Zipper. “It creates pollution and traffic, plus safety risks for pedestrians and bicyclists because people are not focused on the road.”
Dixon points out that many cities don’t address the fact that part of the problem is businesses not providing ample parking for their employees. “In a downtown core, it’s often a challenge to find parking, so employees are parking in premium locations and then moving their cars,” said Julie Dixon. “I know an agency where one employee will take out five car keys and move the cars in and out of spaces.”
Dynamic parking rates are increasingly floated as a way to help reduce demand during those peak hours, according to Zipper, but implementing them requires certain tools.
Finding the Right Tools
Wen Sang, co-founder and CEO of Smarking, which creates business intelligence and management software solutions for municipalities, points out that what people call dynamic pricing is really demand-based pricing. He says to learn what the demand is you have to measure it.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Sang, who created the Smarking technology as a way to take information from a variety of sources — parking equipment, mobile payment solutions, digital meters, LPR systems, online reservation apps, etc. — then push them to the cloud and turn them into actionable insights.
“With this kind of infrastructure in place, parking managers can create a holistic understanding of how parking is used,” said Sang. “This then allows them to have the data to take to the city council and make smart city parking policies.”
Creating smart parking policies also requires that the parking office have a seat at the table when larger city discussions are going on. “A lot of times, a master plan has been hatched and parking just given the results afterwards,” said Uhlenhaker.
Having previously served as chief operating officer for the city of Lansing, Gamble has seen firsthand the need to have multiple levels of involvement. “Dealing with the interconnectivity of technology requires that we have project champions that understand the need for IT staff, parking staff, equipment vendors, service companies and even users to all work together,” said Gamble. He also said that while there is no shortage of new technology, it’s important that vendors understand that behind the technology will be a slew of people who need to work cohesively and collaboratively to achieve the goal of offering a seamless cost-effective user-friendly solution to the customers’ parking needs.
Implementing the Solutions
Part of that user-friendly solution is effectively communicating all that is available to the customers. Dixon has found that oftentimes cities have enough parking, but the perception is the opposite because there is not enough signage pointing people to available spaces. “It’s important to implement the bread crumbing to help people find those available parking assets,” said Dixon.
There’s also the challenge of dealing with a wide range of abilities and interest in using the new technologies. “You have some parkers who only want to interact with an app and not talk to a person and some who still want to pay with coins,” said Uhlenhaker. “It’s a conundrum to serve both of these kinds of people equally well when they’re on opposite ends of the spectrum.”
“We have one community that provides pay stations and mobile payments and the senior population has revolted,” said Dixon.
Gamble said that they’ve addressed this by providing multi-space pay stations that also still take quarters. “It will take 20-30 seconds longer, but you can still do it,” said Gamble, who pointed out that the future still lies with the “people who are born and immediately given a smart phone.”
Enforcing the Policies
The other downfall in technology is that it’s not worth anything unless the policies are enforced. “There’s a lack of consistency on enforcement and compliance of the rules,” said Dixon. “Just because you go out and spend a million dollars on new parking assets doesn’t mean you can walk away and forget about them.”
Both Uhlenhaker and Dixon said they advise their clients to add more enforcement. “It’s crazy that they have to justify adding more people as parking enforcement officers pay for themselves,” said Dixon. “And it affects revenue because people aren’t going to pay for meters if they aren’t being monitored.”
To help, Dixon finds it’s important to go back to why the policies were created in the first place. “It’s important to continually go back to the core root as to why we have the program and then create policies to maintain and enforce them,” said Dixon.
Ann Shepphird is a technical writer for Parking Today. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Camaraderie Among Parking Managers
“It’s not always easy being a city parking manager,” said Kevin Uhlenhaker. “Almost all of them have a story where someone sent them a death threat over a parking ticket. And, because most people have parked a car, they think they’re an expert on the topic and are more than happy to tell parking managers how to do their jobs.”
“There are a lot of what I call arm-chair parking managers,” said Chad Gamble, parking manager for the city of Lansing, Michigan. “We’re not insulated from the front lines like a lot of people in the parking industry. We serve the masses and have to do that with grace and humility.”
Luckily, there’s also an easy camaraderie between parking managers that helps lessen the load. “We’re kind of a fraternal organization,” said Gamble, who pointed out that when parking managers gather together at conferences like PIE, they are usually engaged in colorful, dynamic and deep conversations.
“The sharing of horror stories and a laugh, as well as, lessons learned is a wonderful thing,” said Gamble. “We all want each other to succeed.”