What Makes A Successful Parking Operation?
PTT Interview with Blake Laufer
Blake Laufer: Since I was a little kid, I’ve always liked computers and technology. Video games, “Star Wars,” you name it. I got my first computer in 1982, when I was in high school, and taught myself programming. I got my first email address in 1986, way before most people knew what the Internet was. That’s the “nerd” part of things. I had a small technology business when I was an undergrad at McMaster University in Canada. When I graduated, I decided to go fulltime with my business. One of my first major contracts was building parking software, so that started the ball rolling for me in parking. I did that for nearly seven years before selling my company to join forces with T2 Systems.
PTT: What lessons did you learn from being an entrepreneur?
BL: Being an entrepreneur is an “always-on” job, working a crazy amount of hours and living with the uncertainty that what you’re doing might not be a success. Top lessons for me were probably: (1) understand the customer’s needs and figure out how to fill those needs; (2) recognize when you need help and find good talent to fill that role; and (3) manage your financials prudently.
PTT: What makes a successful parking operation?
BL: The answer here varies based on the operation. Most parking operations want to provide their customers with fair and equitable access to parking. Some want to maximize profit. A few are driven by the desire to keep their name out of the local newspaper. In all cases, though, I think you’re successful if you’re able to find a balance between your variable parking demand, your fixed supply, and operate with fiscal sustainability.
PTT: What industry, or general, resources provide you the most insight?
BL: I think customers are the best source of information; they are on the front line, while I live in an “ivory tower.” I love to keep in contact with a handful of customers who are really technically savvy [and] who also run good parking operations. Those folks are leaders on the edge of parking technology who are solving real-world problems that other parking operations will experience down the road. And, for what it’s worth, I do find the industry magazines are a great source of information. I spend as much time reading the advertisements as I do the articles, because the ads provide insight into what other companies are doing and the problems they’re trying to solve for customers. For technology insight, I do a lot of reading, both online and magazines. And I also see a lot of insight from parallel industries to parking.
PTT: What you do mean parallel industries?
BL: There are other businesses with similar challenges to parking, where the supply is fixed but the demand is variable. Like, for example, airlines seats or hotel rooms ... When that airplane flies with one empty seat, that one seat is lost revenue and lost opportunity – just like a parking space that goes unfilled for the day. The airlines have a mastery of variable pricing, incentives, and standardized metrics like “load-level” and “passenger-mile” to gauge how well they are doing. I like to look to these parallel industries and how they’re solving their problems as potential solutions we could bring to the parking industry.
PTT: You’ve been at this for more than 20 years. What are the biggest technology changes you’ve seen in parking?
BL: I’d say that the biggest change has been the transition between analog [mechanical] devices to digital devices. Meters, gates, paystations -- you don’t see too many mechanical ones today; they are all basically fancy computers now. They store data, use the Internet, provide real-time diagnostics. Subsequently, the pace of technology adoption in parking has really been fast. In the mid-1990s, I think that the typical parking operation was using technology at least a couple decades old. Around “Y2K,” a lot of systems got replaced, and parking was perhaps only five years behind modern technology. And today – there’s hardly any lag at all.
PTT: What are today’s technologies we’re going to see in parking tomorrow (next three to five years)?
BL: I’m tracking a bunch of technologies, seeking the application to parking. Hot today is getting access to the mobile consumer, basically using the smartphone to deliver value to customers and gather data on their behaviors. “Video analytics” is another technology, using analysis of video streams to observe and predict outcomes. Further into the future is the “Internet of Things,” which describes how little hardware devices are all connected to the Internet and serving up bits of data; it makes our homes and our cars and our cities smarter. Oh, and “location awareness” is another trending technology, basically knowing where things are, like people or cars. You can do all sorts of neat things with that data, like tracking, preventing collisions, “geo-fencing,” and so forth.
PTT: Do you think most parking organizations have the technology “chops” to handle the systems that are coming on the market?
BL: Yes and no. On the “yes” side, individual technologies are getting easier to use, and there’s much more emphasis on the user interface and user experience. Plus, the typical parking manager or operator has enough exposure to technology that they can adapt based on what they’ve seen from other non-parking technologies. But on the “no” side, the way systems interact with each other – called interoperability – continues to be difficult, particularly with proprietary systems. So that will be a technology challenge for many parking operations.
PTT: “Big data” has become an industry buzzword. How are you seeing operations put that buzzword into practice compared with a few years ago?
BL: “Big data” is on the “Hype Cycle” right now. It’s trending upward and promising to revolutionize all businesses, including parking. After reality sets in and expectations are reset, then I think big data will deliver solid value to parking operations, and it won’t be a revolution. We will tie together the data collected from our parking field equipment, as well as third-party data such as weather patterns, transportation schedules and even real-estate prices to understand the impact they have on our parking demand. Then we can price accordingly, or plan accordingly. “Big data” rarely replaces a good manager’s intuition; what it does is help elevate the discussion to one that is driven by facts, rather than opinion.
PTT: What is your take on how parking organizations are handling “big data” in their daily operations?
BL: Hmm. In parking I’m not seeing a lot of “big data” application yet – but it’s coming. Several vendors out there have added basic business intelligence to their products; these come in various forms of charts or graphs or dashboards. And these are a good start, but they tell only part of the story – the part that is from that one system. Parking managers look at their operations holistically, as having many systems that work together, not as a bunch of independent systems. So, the real “big data” value will come from bringing intelligence from multiple systems together into a single “intelligence point.” Then the parking manager will be able to discover new operational efficiencies, revenue opportunities, or other actionable steps to improving their parking operation. Working with one system at a time can’t do that.
PTT: What is going to be the next “big thing” for the parking industry?
BL: In technology, we often talk about evolution versus revolution. We are seeing an “evolution” in parking from electric vehicles, space guidance and reservation, and even social media trying to “crowd-source” parking spaces. However, in terms of “revolution,” parking is about to feel more impact from transit – there seems to be a genuine change of attitude around car ownership; for the first time in history, more than 50% of people now live in cities. They take public transportation; they do the car-share thing. So that will impact parking in all sorts of unpredictable ways.
The questions in this article were suggested by PTT and marketing
staff at T2 Systems where Blake is the Vice President of Research. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.