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28 Years in Review

April, 2021

Notes from a Parking Industry Executive

Bob Harkins

This year, 2021, marks my 28th year in the “parking world”. I came into this world by chance. When I interviewed for the position as the Director of Parking for The University of Pittsburgh, it represented a tremendous opportunity. If selected, I would have the opportunity to start an organization from scratch. 


The combined functions of
parking and transportation
must be integrated into
the campus space planning.


In the early 1990s, there was little recognition of “parking” as a necessary function, particularly on a college or university campus. Many institutions of higher education situated “parking” in the university police departments. The purpose of the parking office was to control the on-campus parking spaces. The emphasis was on ticketing and enforcing the obscure parking rules. 


Parking tickets were hand written and it was difficult to collect fines for violations. Many individuals found that any encounter with the parking office was often negative. The thought of integrating parking into campus planning was in its infancy. Most parking management systems were mired in the “old cigar box” system of revenue collection. Parking management computer systems were also in their infancy. The person who parked on campus was not seen as a customer or valued client. Customer service was lacking. 


Additionally, the concept of providing campus transportation was another emerging concept. The idea of having buses to move students, staff, and faculty was not a widely accepted concept, across the nation. Likewise, the thought of combining parking and transportation into single department was starting to take hold. The time for these functions to become a campus service had come. 


I arrived at The University of Pittsburgh after serving 27 years in the U.S. Army. During those years I had the opportunity to lead soldiers from the platoon level (45 soldiers) to brigade level (3,000 soldiers). My background and experience were focused on the concept of mission accomplishment, while honoring the needs and welfare of soldiers. 


Defining the Mission of University Parking Departments


As I organized the University of Pittsburgh Department of Parking and Transportation, the initial efforts were to define our mission and focus on our functions of service to the customers. Seven years later, I moved to a comparable position at The University of Texas in Austin, Texas. While the department was already operational, the same basic approach to parking and transportation existed that I had found at The University of Pittsburgh. Customer service was lacking.


In today’s world the combined functions of parking and transportation must be integrated into the campus facility’s space planning and various campus environmental planning efforts. To meet these challenges an integrated parking and transportation plan must be developed and implemented. Many institutions have developed such a plan, but with the impact and lessons learned from COVID 19, all operational plans should be reviewed and modified to adjust to the new reality. The next steps require coupling operational issues with the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic is creating. What is the impact on office attendance and student presence in classrooms? Certainly, the use of the virtual classroom contact for students will definitely impact land and building space planning and utilization. Things are changing!


In most intuitions of higher education, the parking and transportation function is an auxiliary service. Traditionally, this means that the department must be financially self-sufficient without institutional financial support. First, it must be understood that many organizations have significant bonded debt for garages or parking decks that must be paid. The second most costly expense is the salaries and benefits for employees. Efficiencies should be developed to reduce maintenance expenses, and the cost of operations, while increasing the needed revenue required. 


As we resolve the basic financial issues, it is critical that we examine the mission of the parking and transportation department. All parking and transportation organizations should function as a service organization. The campus must understand that there is no such thing as “free parking”. All services cost dollars, even if advertised as “free”. Someone pays for all “free” things. Campus must be led to understand this concept. However, when planning, there must be a balance in the distribution and cost of a parking space. Leadership must be fair with all distribution of costs. Also, leadership must be able to explain these policies in easily understood terms.


 A significant limiting factor on many campuses is land availability for institutional use. A complicating factor is that many colleges and universities are located in an urban or suburban area, where land is at a premium. As educational functions increase and student enrollment increase, wise land use will be critical. When we move parking further from the center of campus to the fringe areas, the availability of short-range transportation becomes critical. With the coordinated use of shuttle buses, a lessening of congestion in the core of the campus could become a reality. 


Integrating Mass Transit


There are three major options to maximize the use of mass transit. First, is an agreement with the local mass transportation agency. Many universities have such a mutually beneficial agreement. With this option, the local mass transportation agency can benefit by claiming the ridership numbers for Federal reimbursement. Secondly, the institution can purchase its own fleet of vehicles and operate the system internally. In a third major approach, the institution can contract with a private entity to provide require services. Many institutions have instituted a “transportation fee” to support fare free entrance on shuttle vehicles. This transportation system should be developed in concert with the locations of student apartments or residence halls and desired end destinations throughout campus. The campus transportation plan should include night transportation for safety and security reasons. The transportation system of a college or university may be able to solve a myriad of complex demands of an active campus. 


There are significant functions that must always have leadership’s close attention. Day or hourly parking, permit parking and transportation issues demand attention. However, the campus must be able to function. Loading zones and access to institutional facilities are critical to campus life and must be well planned. Ensuring that disabled parking is compliant with state and federal regulations is another area that demands continuous attention. There is always construction on campus that will disrupt campus life. On many campuses, special events such as football, concerts, and conference meetings all require detailed planning. 


Organize Parking as a Service


Departmental staff should view all operations through the lens of the customer and being a service department. All systems should be simple to explain and easy for the first-time parker to comply. The ideal situation allows the potential parker to use technology to map a route to an open parking space on campus. This requires a technology system that is accessible to all by linking to social media to reserve and pay for parking. One of the best things a parking and transportation department can do is build rapport on campus with students, staff, and faculty. First steps may be to form a broad-based committee to work through campus parking and transportation issues. The leadership of the department must be visible on campus and meet with the student government leaders, staff organization leaders and the faculty. 


Clearly, parking has changed in my 28 years. Technology helps, but the bottom line is the parking staff must be focused on customer service. In the past, parking has had a bad reputation. It is up to all of us to focus our attention on customer service.


Bob Harkins is CEO of Harkins Consulting LLC. He can be reached at bharkins@utexas.edu



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