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Parking is a Complicated Space

October 15, 2018

Kevin Dougherty

A few years ago, my wife and I were expecting our first child, so of course I told everyone I knew, and some people I didn’t. I was amazed at how everyone had an expert opinion on what we should name the kid. It took four or five people for me to realize that this was not some passing occurrence and it would continue until we finally made the final selection. That’s because everyone has a name, so everyone has a point of view and feels free to share advice on length, number of syllables, ease of pronunciation or spelling, etc., even to a complete stranger. 


In a lot of ways, parking is the same – everyone has had some experience with parking, including those that have never driven a car. That same widely discoursed child I now have (who has an awesome name), recognizes the torture of driving around when you can’t find a parking spot. For most, this is the extent of their relationship to parking. The average person will never understand the vast infrastructure, networks and operations required to afford them a convenient trip downtown. Because parking is a complicated space. 


The rampant availability of technology is allowing companies to expand their offerings well beyond their original core competency. An example: 


Parking meters used to be coin operated kitchen timers in a thick candy shell. Now they are tech heavy, networked devices that can process credit cards and even sense when cars have left the space. Meeting ran over? No problem, top off the meter from your smart phone without having to excuse yourself from Bill’s long-winded presentation (though you can still use it as an excuse). 


This means that meter companies are no longer glorified clock makers, they are one of the most technologically advanced sectors of the industry and leading the way on several fronts. By adding in the modems and processors necessary to support credit card payments, they opened the door to reserving spots ahead of time, web payments, and a whole world of (boring, but important) changes to how revenue and metrics are recorded, reported and analyzed. 


This sea change across the industry is having two major effects, it is flattening the parking world and creating entirely new business sectors.


When we landed in the middle of this old industry, with a new tool that would have an impact on the way many in the space do business, we decided to map out exactly who each of the players were and what they actually did. Simple, right? It used to be: meter companies made meters, ticket companies made tickets, and operators operated.


Today, meter companies do analytics and enforcement, tickets get printed out on nifty little handheld printers (if at all), and BMW (yes, the car company) just bought a mobile parking payment and reservation company. After a lot of research and untangling the web – we landed on what we think is a pretty good representation of the current parking landscape. Disclaimer: we used internal criteria to determine who should go where, and many companies are in multiple categories. It changes frequently. Please contact us if you would like to amend or add your company’s listing. 


Three years ago, many of these companies would only show up in one category, maybe two for the more progressive. With the arrival of new technologies, or the now mature adoption of those technologies, many parking companies (and those that invest in them) have quickly adapted their businesses to diversify their product offering and take advantage of new opportunities. 


Parking meters used to be coin operated kitchen timers in a thick candy shell.


This has created new battlegrounds across the spectrum of offerings - Hardware, Software, Mobile and Business Intelligence. The one conspicuously missing from this list is service, through operations. Though “people operations” are certainly affected by new hardware and software adoption, the impacts are usually felt over a longer trajectory in a less profound way. You can outsource how a parking space is booked, but you can’t outsource the parking space, or the people needed to manage them. 


What may be even more striking is the fact that 10 years ago, about half of these companies didn’t exist, at least not in their current form. Some weren’t possible due to the lack of technology, and some have just evolved, adapted or been absorbed into different companies. And some just weren’t necessary yet. A good example would be License Plate Recognition (LPR) companies. Although the technology has been around for 20+ years, its use in parking was not necessary or economically viable until the last decade. 


We didn’t invent parking enforcement, it’s been around for a long time – the Denver boot was invented in the 1940s and its design remains largely unchanged. The same is true across the sector, parking garages, gate arms, meters, etc., have been around a long time, for as long as there has been the need to park your car. What has changed is the customer experience, using technology to make it better, faster, and safer. These new companies didn’t invent the process, but they have invented a way to make it better. 


Parking is a complicated space, and it’s only getting more complicated as verticals blend and the boundaries between companies become less clear. There are many U.S. cities that currently employ five or more of the companies on the diagram, while most must have at least two. I predict that in the next three years, through M&A or diversification, “platform” companies will be able to provide the full scope of a city’s needs. Which begs the question – will current complication lead to simplification? Time will tell. 


Kevin Dougherty is CEO, Barnacle Parking Enforcement. He can be reached at Kevin@barnacleparking.com


 



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