Universities Need to Get More from Their Technology


Universities Need to Get More from Their Technology

Universities, like many parking owners, have spent the past few years automating their parking locations and systems. The automation trend began with the introduction of tools that integrated with Parking Access and Revenue Control Systems (PARCS) to provide a frictionless parking experience. The introduction of frictionless parking suites provided a much more customer-friendly experience while making parking more manageable and cost-effective.


This trend was accelerated by the Covid pandemic. For owners of all types, including universities, the automation strategy they had already begun to consider, or even implement, suddenly provided public health benefits by reducing face-to-face interactions between customers and staff. By the time the pandemic had run its course, many universities had fully automated their parking systems.


That said, while campuses across North America have automated their parking systems, many aren’t using their automated systems to their full capability. Sure, these systems are making campus parking more efficient, but on most campuses, the technologies could be doing more.


License Plate Recognition

Take, for example, LPR. Many schools have implemented LPR to help manage parking permits as part of gateless, frictionless parking systems. Most universities with gateless operations use mobile LPR for enforcement. When a parked vehicle’s license plate is scanned, the LPR recognizes the vehicle as belonging to a permitted parker. If a car without a permit enters the lot, the system flags the vehicle for enforcement action.


It’s a simple, effective system for managing permits. It’s cost-effective, too, because it doesn’t require on-site staff to manage entry and egress, and it minimizes the number of enforcement officers required to serve a parking lot or garage. By eliminating the need for physical hang tags or transponders to identify permit parkers, it can also save colleges and universities thousands of dollars spent to produce physical permits, replace them when they are inevitably lost or damaged, and manage the overall permit process. 


LPR systems can provide much more value, and most universities aren’t getting that value. Most notably, LPR can provide occupancy data regarding who is using particular lots and garages, and when they are doing so. Mobile LPR can also provide information about how the spaces within a facility fill, remain occupied over time, and empty. When mobile LPR takes a scan, it provides geographic information system (GIS) coordinates to that scan. In short, the LPR can tell parking managers which parking facility a particular vehicle is using and what type of parker (resident student, commuting student, faculty, staff, or visitor) it is. That information could be made available to parking managers in real-time so they can understand exactly how campus parking resources are being utilized at that particular moment. 


The data can also be archived so parking planners can make more informed decisions about how to manage campus parking assets. By analyzing utilization trends over specific periods of time, campus planners can understand how class schedules impact parking and then rework class schedules in ways that put less stress on parking resources and reduce congestion on campus. 


Archival data can also help planners understand mobility trends overall, including who is driving, how many students and staff are using micromobility, and how many visitors require parking. It can also help college administrators understand how many vehicles are essentially sedentary, used every few weeks by resident students, and how many are driving to and from campus daily. This is all essential data for managing parking assets more effectively. 


Effective management is more important than ever. There is more competition today between colleges and universities, and parking is an essential service and amenity that impacts students’ choice. Incoming students want to be able to bring their personal vehicles to college, and colleges and universities that have efficiently run parking systems that can accommodate all vehicles have a decided advantage as they recruit new students. 


One reason that colleges and universities have been slow to access all the data capabilities of LPR is concerns over privacy. (And, yes, there are certain states and localities that prohibit collection of license plate information.) Even institutions that collect and use parking data often wipe it every 30 days to protect the privacy of people who are parking in campus lots and garages. Data security should be an elemental concern for everyone, and it’s particularly important in an academic environment. 


As important as privacy is, it’s easily managed. Parking data can be tokenized, and never needs to be individualized. So, rather than associating a vehicle’s permit with an individual, it can be tied to a parking type: resident student, commuting student, staff, or faculty. When the data is collected and analyzed, it won’t tell parking planners who parked, but rather what type of parker used the parking facility, and when. This is essential information for managing parking assets without compromising individual users.  



Another way in which many colleges and universities aren’t getting enough out of their LPR is enforcement. Just as LPR can provide data about utilization to parking managers, it can also provide data about payment compliance to enforcement officers. Campus enforcement personnel are much more effective—and efficient—when they have access to LPR enforcement data.


There are two ways in which LPR can help with parking enforcement. The most obvious and direct is permit management. When fixed LPR cameras mounted at an entry record the passage of an unpermitted vehicle, they can record the license plate information and transmit it, along with the parking location, to enforcement officers. Officers can then be dispatched to that parking lot or garage to ticket the vehicle or leave a warning notification letting the parker know where they are authorized to park when they visit in the future. This reduces the need for continual patrolling of the parking facilities by enforcement vehicles.


Another common issue at universities is that they maintain separate camera systems for law enforcement and parking. For instance, some universities have security cameras that are also used to keep track of repeat-offending vehicles or drivers on law enforcement watch lists. It makes no sense to utilize this hardware but not have it communicate with the campus parking department. Modern cameras are very versatile, able to manage more than one function at a time. When there are both law enforcement and parking cameras in a parking lot or garage, they should be set up to talk to each other.


In fact, colleges and universities should look to cities to learn how to manage automated enforcement. Cities like Denver, Colorado have very sophisticated systems that utilize the data provided by LPR-equipped vehicles in real time. As a result, city parking managers know where their enforcement officers are and can see citations as they are written. They also know which lots and garages have been monitored and when. When necessary, they can divert officers to facilities that haven’t yet been checked. College and university campuses are small cities, and a city-enforcement model utilizing LPR-equipped vehicles can be the perfect solution for institutions of all sizes.


All About Data

In the smart technology age, institutions need to treat smart technologies differently than past tools. This means ending the practice of departmental siloing. When departments share data, it paints a more robust picture of what is happening on campus.


The people who use the data daily are best positioned to understand what’s lacking in terms data collection. Ideally, colleges and universities should hold regular data summits to examine the data that’s collected, where it comes from, what’s being connected, and how it’s being communicated. This process can help universities use their technology to its greatest capacity. The institution’s parking consultant can also be included in this process because they can serve as an independent arbiter who can bring to the table the experiences of other universities that have faced similar challenges.


The effectiveness of smart technologies is defined by how the technologies are applied, implemented, and utilized. While most colleges and universities have implemented one or more smart parking technologies, many don’t use their tools to their fullest capabilities. A linked system that collects and integrates data from all technology located in parking facilities, and formal, strategic process for managing that data is essential to getting the most out of your technology.


Ben Sands is Manager of Parking Planning and Operations for WGI Inc. He can be reached at Benjamin.Sands@wginc.com

Article contributed by:
Ben Sands, WGI Inc.
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