“Smart Cities,’ “Parkageddon,’ Bad PR, and “Outside the Box’


“Smart Cities,’ “Parkageddon,’ Bad PR, and “Outside the Box’

was favored to spend some time at PARKEX in the UK last month with the senior staff at IPS and, in a different meeting, with a group from Conduit.

While these are different companies — IPS supplying hardware and back-office management for on-street enforcement; and Conduit providing a suite of services for cities, focusing primarily on collections — the concept of “Smart Cities” was not foreign to them.

The IPS folks spoke at length about how many cities are already “smart,” but their issues seem to be correlating the information they already have.

Water meters, electric meters, parking meters, street lights, traffic signals, sensors, even locators for police and emergency vehicles all exist in one form or another in cities around the world. In the parking arena, many companies provide “dashboards” where parking data can be gathered and reviewed. “Our industry has been ‘smart’ for some time, but the term hasn’t been applied.”

The Conduit group commented that while it’s true that the information exists, many cities aren’t “smart” enough to be able to extract the data they need. In fact, that is often the biggest problem: A city has the data but doesn’t know what to do with it or how to use it. “Cities often put the cart before the horse and go on a headlong project to ‘slice and dice’ the data, but have no real goal as to what they are going to do with it.”

I noted that a keynote speaker we had a few years ago at PT’s Parking Industry Exhibition had made the outlandish statement that often such projects are “politically driven” and exist only to provide a basis on which mayors and council folk can build their reputations. But as soon as that project’s support changes, it loses backing and simply fades away.

The PIE speaker was talking about so-called “green” projects in the Pacific Northwest. The administration had embarked on a citywide project to turn their schools green. They built a new school that met all the green requirements. The mayor was on the front row cutting the ribbon. Then the administration changed, and the new mayor had a different agenda. The school project died from lack of interest.

To create a smart city, one has to embark on a long-term, extremely complicated and expensive project. Technology must be selected, and data must be analyzed. I read in April’s Parking Today that hiring for those positions is becoming more and more difficult. What if I collected the data and there was no one there to use it?

So a city begins a 10-year project to become “smart” — remembering that this is not like an airport, which everyone can see changing and participate in the results of the project. “Smart Cities” require shepherding and vision. They require infrastructure and technology. And often the results cannot be readily seen by the citizenry.

It’s easy for the politicians who were elected promoting this vision to be distracted by minor worries such as potholes, schools, fire departments, hospitals and the like. Distractions that cost money and require attention.

I recently read an article in The Economist (“How not to create traffic jams, pollution and urban sprawl: Don’t let people park for free,” April 8, 2017) that breathlessly proclaimed that we were in a “Parkageddon.”

Seems the writer somehow tripped onto the idea that parking was too cheap, and that some places it’s free. This, he says, causes too much use of vehicles, and if only we could charge market rates, people would get out of their cars and take public transportation. Don Shoup, call your office.

The lengthy piece keeps bringing up self-driving vehicles — and how they will solve parking issues — by describing a family who used autonomous cars.

“Starting in the morning, one car could take a child to school, a city worker to his office, a student to her lecture…” So that family would use four cars each morning. But then they would have to park somewhere during the day until they were needed to return that family to the bosom of its home.

As The Economist clutched its pearls and headed for the fainting couch, I am reminded that The Donald (Shoup, that is) has been preaching about this issue for, what, a decade?

It’s as if this issue suddenly arose where no issue existed before.

I wonder sometimes about reporters and editors. Do they live in silos and never venture out into the world? Do they drive, park, and actually participate in what one might call “real life?” One would think they might notice that cars are everywhere, and it costs money to park them, but not really that much.

Well, this is the group that brings us “fake news” and stories about being kidnapped by aliens.

I recently came across a RestonNow.com story posted on PT’s ParkNews.biz. Seems a local shopping mall decided to begin charging for parking, and all hell broke loose. I searched our website and found that Editor Astrid Ambroziak had posted 23 stories about the project in Reston, VA, a DC suburb. They are pretty close to torches and pitchforks. Comments in the local press are damning.

So what happened? I have spoken to people close to the project and discovered the following:

The landlord of Reston Town Center (Boston Properties) decided in 2015 to begin to search for a way to charge for parking. The 7,000 space facility was thought to be under stress from the local Metro station and the closure of a surface lot nearby (for the construction of a building). Rightly or wrongly, it was determined that a gated facility would not work due to traffic flows, so a “gateless” solution was found.

Enter Passport and Park Assist. The concept was that Park Assist would record license numbers of those entering the facility, and Passport would, through a downloaded app, collect money from daily parkers (monthlies would be credited through their license plates.)

However, some six months before the paid parking was implemented, in June 2016, the merchants in the mall circulated a petition to stop the move.

The merchants were convinced that paid parking would hurt their business. There was no possible way that the landlord could implement the program, because any minor hiccup would be blown sky-high by the merchants, parkers and local media (23 stories in six months).

From my understanding reading the local press, the startup was less than stellar. Parking attendants were untrained. Signage was less then optimal. Complaints were taken to mall merchants, who used them to add fuel to an already roaring fire. (It was noted that merchants actually put their staff near the kiosks to assist parkers.)

The mall began charging for parking, but it did not enforce the rules for the first three months. Although there was some signage noting that if you didn’t pay, you would be booted or fined, no one was.

One restaurant is suing. And, of course, the media are jumping on every issue, quoting irate parkers (it matters little how few there are), following the lawsuit. And the streets surrounding the mall are ringing with the slogan “All Parking Should Be Free.”

It’s easy enough to list the 100 or so things the landlord did wrong. But I’m sure they are considering the problems internally all up and down the DC-NYC- Boston corridor. What can they do now?

First — get some high level staff on site to deal with every problem, major or minor, instantly and with intellect.

Second — get on the right side of the PR battle. Get those merchants to understand that bad PR about parking is bad PR for everyone.

Third — get validations out there and be certain that the program works well.

Fourth — meet daily with the merchants, solve their problems. Hear their side of the story and then tell yours. Fight statistics with statistics. My understanding is that the number of cars parking in the facility is exceeding projections. If the people are parking, why are the merchants complaining?

Fifth — well, does anyone out there have any ideas? Remember this kind of PR hurts the entire industry. How can we help?

Article contributed by:
John Van Horn
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