Slaying the Parking Bogeymen
By Matt Darst
Parking managers today are inundated with data. They have at their disposal a sea of information from disparate technologies: citations, staff performance, parking meter payments, permits, disability placard abuse, cellphone and app payments, and occupancy info among a tangle of other sources.
While those data can provide the analytical underpinnings for improving processes and policies, finding the requisite patterns to inform insights can be a monster hunt.
Of Lochs and Parking
The first documented sighting of “Nessie,” the alleged prehistoric creature of Loch Ness, was more than 80 years ago. That initial account garnered attention, as well as an infusion of tourist dollars into Scotland. Since 1933, there have been dozens of reported Nessie sightings. Yet, despite these accounts and hundreds of expeditions to explore the lake, no one has been able to substantiate the beast’s existence. All we’re left with are anecdotes, many just retellings of earlier yarns. Over time, however, the myth has taken on a life of its own, the legend becoming conflated with reality.
Parking is no different really. In the industry, a number of longstanding myths have been passed down from one generation of parking professionals to another, sometimes changing in their retelling. Most of these myths, as we’ll see, are mistakes of fact based on assumptions or simple failures to understand data. Some can be characterized as wishful thinking. Others still are mischaracterizations, hoaxes that, like Nessie, attract attention and may help sell products.
The Tale of the Parking ‘Bigfoot’ (or Demarcated Vs Free-Flow Parking)
Pay-by-plate and pay-and-display kiosk manufacturers often talk about the parking “Bigfoot,” or the myth that moving from a pay-by-space environment to an “undemarcated” one (by removing painted lines or meter poles) universally allows for more parkers. At first blush, their reasoning makes sense. If you take a block with nine or ten stalls and effectively gain 2 feet from each one, theoretically you should be able to expand the parking footprint and improve the number of parkers by 10% or 11%
Unfortunately, manufacturers often apply this math system-wide, assuming that the parking Bigfoot inhabits every block of an urban parking system.  That, however, is not the case. The parking Bigfoot is more elusive.
In order to gain back enough space to park another car, the nine or ten stalls noted above must be contiguous. Break up those spaces with a “no parking” zone (fire hydrants, alleys or loading zones, for instance), and it becomes physically impossible to make room for another vehicle.
Further, the theory doesn’t account for simple human behavior. Humans don’t necessarily park to optimize supply. No, motorists generally try to park near their destination.
A team of data scientists and researchers using computer vision studied parking patterns on a block in a large East Coast city and made some interesting findings. They determined that spaces may actually be lost in unmarked areas during periods when utilization is highest, shrinking the potential parking footprint. 
A similar study in Washington, DC, yielded comparable results. Although the sampled DC block would allow for eight or nine vehicles, the likelihood of being able to park the maximum number of vehicles declined as occupancy increased.
For instance, whenever there were seven cars parked on the block, the chance of adding another vehicle was just 16.5%, meaning that more than 80% of the time, full occupancy on a block cannot be reached in an undemarcated area. 
Granted, every city is different, and within each city, every block is different. But additional studies may put to question the full extent of efficiencies offered by free-flow systems. 
The Myth of Vampire Technologies
A prevalent belief within parking is that new technology sucks the lifeblood out of parking citation issuance. “Vampire” technologies such as credit card-accepting meters and pay-by-phone options make paying for parking easier, increasing compliance, and reducing citations and revenue −or so the myth goes.
Parking managers across the country cite declining issuance as proof. Indeed, a year-over-year examination of issuance across multiple U.S. cities reveals some significant declines. On average, across more than a dozen sampled municipalities, citation issuance has declined by 17% since 2011.
But conjecture can be dangerous.
In the early 1700s, for instance, Europe was rocked by a vampire scare, an epidemic that never existed. Villagers mistook signs of normal human decomposition (plumpness and ruddiness of recently buried corpses) as signs that the dead were rising and feeding on the living. Before long, angry mobs were disinterring bodies and accusing people of witchcraft. It took the medical community to set the record straight.
It’s not unreasonable to think that parking administrators today are doing the same, attributing symptoms of poor productivity to the wrong cause. A number of factors beyond simply making it easier to pay a meter are probably taking their toll on ticket issuance: worsening winter weather, a shift in police focus from minor offenses to criminal activity, a lack of supervisory resources, the inability to hire and/or replace staff due to budgetary constraints, challenges with integration, old technology, and difficulties managing performance.
The fact that expired meter violation capture rates remain extremely low in U.S. cities, hovering at just 4% in some, lends credence to the fact that compliance has not improved to the level necessary to impact citation issuance.
In one Midwest city polled, however, citation productivity has improved 37% since new meter technology and pay-by-cell options were provided to customers. Although the number of its parking enforcement officers (PEOs) has not increased in more than a decade, improvements have been realized each year since 2011. The key has been a focus on business processes, including the optimization of shifts, data integration and the use of predictive analytics.
Another often neglected truth: People paying by credit card or using cellphones actually purchase more time per transaction than customers using coins.  That should come as no surprise: Customers forced to beg for change from businesses or to turn their couch inside out looking for coins are less likely to purchase the time they want. Rarely, however, is this revenue improvement discussed as an offsetting factor when talking about declines in citation revenue.
We must avoid the temptation to link mysterious declines in municipal citation volumes with the rise of convenient technologies. We need to eschew folklore.
Cities suffering from a decline in citation revenue during a weak economy should not be so quick to vilify technologies that make parking easier. Instead, they should study parking trends further and place strategic focus on performance management.
Matt Darst, VP of Parking and Mobility Solutions at Xerox, can be reached at Matthew.Darst@xerox.com